brain & mind – where matter meets metaphysics

meme – ataraxiom

noun;  hybrid of “ataraxia” (Ἀταραξία “tranquility”)+ “axiom“.


~<{{will be seriously challenging to modern ‘skeptics’ and people of faith alike! }}}>~



Ataraxia is the entelechy (inner purpose and inherent end) of philosophy – or at the least of the philosophies of Epicurus the materialist and Pyrrho the skeptic alike. Depending on your view, ataraxia is the goal or at least the result of philosophy and the physical sciences.

In Pyrrho’s skepticism, nothing is known with certainty and there seems to be no way to ever come to certainty. There is no rock-bottom reality as far as we can perceive. Since everything would have to be proved by everything else, all argument is either circular or a chain that hangs from nothing and never ends. In other words, if we start with any positive statement, such as “I know that grass is green” and challenge it with a series of valid questions such as “how do you know grass is green?” and then questions about the validity of perception, the fallibility of knowledge (epistemology, ontology, etc.), logical proofs and so on we will never come to a point where the statement is finally proven. The potential questions would never end as each new proof implies more questions.

To prove that you know anything would require endless other proofs.

This idea returns again and again throughout philosophy. The philosophy of Hegel, for example, holds this view, as we will see. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) held this view after years of intense intellectual inquiry. Socrates held this view, often paraphrased, “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.”1  There is a heretical branch of philosophy in Islam that arrives at this view (more on this below). As we will see, the same can be found in Hindu skepticism, Jainism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Thelemic philosophy, ‘chaos magick’, ontological anarchy and so on.



With the impossibility of certainty comes freedom. Because nothing is known for certain, there are no real limits. Depending on whether you love or fear the Mystery, this is either a terrible yawning abyss or a wonderful liberation. Indeed one sometimes (but not always) must pass through this unfathomable abyss before arriving at a peace of mind. I suppose it comes down to whether you are neophobic (afraid of the new and unknown) or neophilic (love the new and unknown).

At any rate, “skepticism is the ever present gadfly to philosophers, challenging them to find some semblance of truth, if they can” and “the Greek skeptics were..seeking a calm state of mind (ataraxia).”2

Ataraxia is the state of clarity and tranquility resulting from the realization that nothing is certain. It is a peace of mind, indeed it is a quiescence of thought and lucidity resulting from the height of knowledge. If assertions and contradictions are ripples on the surface of water, ataraxia is the absence of disturbances, resulting in a smooth reflective surface like a mirror.

In meditation, one quiets all thoughts and all disturbances but remains totally aware. This results in a profound sense of clearness and peace. If  sustained, it brings bliss, ecstasy, and illumination. However one can start from any viewpoint, hold any opinion or philosophy (or lack a philosophy) and meditate until one finds clarity and inner peace but in philosophy (East or West) one arrives at ataraxia after systematic logical philosophy. One first reaches the penultimate of knowledge and realizes nothing can be known for certain and gains clarity and peace of mind as a result.



Ataraxiom is simply an axiom of ataraxia. In other words, if you take the position that tranquility results from the freedom from certainty which is the end result of all reason and philosophy then your axiom is one of skepticism resulting in ataraxia. You have an ataraxiom.






The point has been made. But for more completeness we will now go back and consider ataraxia of Greek philosophical skepticism with a little more depth, take a look at Epicurean ataraxia (here’s where it gets sticky for materialism) and look at analogous views from various other schools of thought.

Epicurus was a materialist. That is he did not believe in that which can not be touched, seen and so on. In his philosophy, Epicureanism, one does not worry about the afterlife, the gods and so on. One turns rather to a tranquility and a full enjoyment of life. In epicureanism there is an emphasis on celebration and delights of the senses because “why not?” But leaving that aside, in Epicurean materialism, this inner peace and tranquility results from a purely materialist view. Today’s “materialists” would consider this suspiciously mystical and somewhat “New Age”. But as with true skepticism, true materialism is not as shallow as today’s “skepticism” and “materialism”. At its least sophisticated level, Epicureanism can be summed up as “Don’t worry, be happy.” It is a common misconception that Epicurean materialism is about indulging in Bacchanalian excesses of sensory enjoyment (Sex, drugs and rock and roll!). But actually it places emphasis on being virtuous, trustworthy, kind, and affectionate.

In Taoism the ataraxia is implied. The Tao te Ching more or less comes to the same conclusions as the Greek skeptics and India’s Sanjaya and most certainly emphasizes suspension of judgement and resulting tranquility.

Confucianism is a lot more reserved. It does not seem to accept that nothing can be known for certain. The Confucian Analects merely advises to make a distinction between that which you know and that which you do not know;  “When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.” 6

Mainstream Buddhism of course thinks things all the way through to the logical conclusion that there is no conclusion. Like all the other philosophies mentioned, Buddhism recommends that once this is realized, one turns to quiescence and tranquility.

To be precise, the term is Upeksa or Upekkha ( उपेक्षा ) in Sanskrit and btang snyoms ( བཏང་སྙོམས ) in Tibetan Buddhism. While synonymous with the skeptics’ ataraxia, this quiescence of mind is merely the preliminary purification of the mind that is necessary before enlightenment can be reached. In fact, Upekkha is the first of Buddhisms 10 steps to parami (perfection or completeness).

In Japan Zen Buddhism arrives at the same conclusions and tranquility but without official written doctrine. Zen Buddhism stresses skipping all argument in the first place and achieving the same realizations as the skeptics, Sanjaya and other forms of Buddhism but through silent meditation. But, practically speaking, when necessary (which is often) the Zen master will engage the student in a dialogue analogous to those of Plato and Socrates but with much more emphasis on paradox. The student was directed to arrive at the same (anti)conclusion of skepticism, albeit in a feverish intensity, and arrive at tranquility they call satori. Satori has strong implications of sudden realization (a huge “AHA!”) but also of peace of mind as in ataraxia. Like the Upekkha of continental Buddhism, in Japan’s Zen Buddhism, satori is considered the first step to nirvana (perfection or completion).

Sanjaya, the Indian skeptic was fond of saying “If you ask me whether there is another world – well, if I thought there were, I would say so. But I don’t say so. And I don’t think it is thus or thus. And don’t think it is otherwise. And I don’t deny it. And I don’t say there neither is, nor is not, another world…to each of these questions I give the same reply.”4

In A Comparative History of Ideas, Hajimi Nakamura writes, “Sanjaya did not want to be involved in metaphysical dispute. The only aim he pursued seems to have been calmness of mind. In terms of epistemology, Sanjaya’s attitude can be called “suspension of judgment as far as possible... (those who held views such as Sanjaya) claimed that we can say nothing concerning things, but can only assert that this or that appears so or so, and in so doing we report only our own momentary states. Furthermore the Greek skeptics were, as was Sanjaya, seeking a calm state of mind (ataraxia).2

Nakamura also writes, “Many of the Platonic dialogues reach no positive conclusion, and aim at leaving the reader in a state of doubt…The Platonic dialect could be treated as an end, rather than a means, and if so treated lends itself admirably to the advocacy of skepticism…” and that a student of Pyrrho, Timon, “held that we must suspend judgement…avoiding entrapment in theoretical assertions. Remaining so freed from potentially faulty reasoning, a man may then attain to true ataraxia, tranquility of the soul...tranquility of the soul was the goal of all schools of Greek skepticism…”2

Though I am unschooled in philosophy, I have started to teach myself. I noticed right away that Hegelianism (the philosophy of Hegel) is essentially the same as the basis of Pyrrhonism in that nothing can be proved or disproved. Hegel pointed out that nothing less than the entirety of existence has reality. Each component of the whole is incomplete in itself and exists in relation to other parts of the whole;

   The view of Hegel, and of many other philosophers, is that the character of any portion of the universe is so profoundly affected by its relations to the other parts and to the whole, that no true statement can be made about any part except to assign its place in the whole. Since its place in the whole depends upon all other parts, a true statement about its place in the whole will at the same time assign the place of every other part in the whole. Thus there can be only one true statement; there is no truth except the whole truth. And similarly nothing is quite real except the whole, for any part, when isolated, is changed in character by being isolated, and therefore no longer appears quite what it truly is. On the other hand, when a part is viewed in relation to the whole, as it should be, it is seen to be not self-subsistent, and to be incapable of existing except as part of just that whole which alone is truly real. This is the metaphysical doctrine. 5

This is an other way of saying that all argument is circular or an endless chain hanging from nothing. As far as I have learned so far, Hegel does not then conclude that we should then have a peace of mind about the inherent uncertainty of existence. He seems to deny that there is a real self, let alone that the self can have peace of mind. However, Hegel’s philosophy does confirm the basic starting premise. It is up to us how we react to the premise. If we choose, we can arrive at ataraxia through Hegelianism.

Earlier I mentioned that ataraxia is a also a potential result of the physical sciences. I will not burden the reader here with an explanation of quantum mechanics or quantum physics. Suffice to say that quantum physics is the epitome of the physical sciences and it has reached a point now in which it is demonstrable in a lab that observation changes that which is observed. In other words, there is no rock bottom reality independent of our subjective perceptions. A valid interpretation of quantum physics is an “observer created universe”. An other valid interpretation is that everything that can happen does happen in endless alternate universes. It reels the mind. Again; an endless chain suspended from nothing or circular logic. However it can not be ignored that the quantum facts come to the same point as the skeptics. Again, one can chose a frightening abyss or the tranquility of ataraxia.

In mathematics there is Kurt Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem3. This mathematically proves that;

1. a system that is consistent can not be complete and;

2. that the consistency of a system cannot be determined from within the system.

In other words, if it is “true” it can not be the “whole truth”. It remains incomplete. It remains uncertain. Gödel’s theorem is a mathematical proof of the assertions of philosophers like Pyrrho and Hegel that there are no self-evident truths because everything must be proven by everything else and can not be completely proven. Gödel’s theorem stunned the field of mathematics and has huge implications in all fields. Being an abstract science, mathematics was supposed to be free of the uncertainty of the physical sciences. That 1 + 1 = 2  is supposed to be true, no matter how fallible our knowledge and perception is. But Godel comes along and proves that nothing can be proven in mathematics!

So there you have it. In philosophy, the physical sciences and pure mathematics, nothing is certain and you are free!

Reality is open-source.


More Fringey Examples

Ontological Anarchy and the chaos philosophies of the late 20th century (Hakim Bey, P.J. Carroll, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, et al) are somewhat analogous to the ataraxiom.

Nothing is true, All is Permitted.” This phrase is attributed to the semi-legendary Hassan-i-Sabbah, a Persian polymath (metaphysics, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, architecture, medicine and more) and leader of the Nizari Isma’illi, a mystical sect of Islam. It is debated whether Hassan actually uttered these words (legend has it spoken from his death bed as his last words) but what matters to many is the philosophy behind the axiom. It is an unfortunate translation because it seems to say that “all things are allowed” (but by whom?). It is clear from a study of his philosophy that he meant “Nothing is certain, all is possible“. Indeed this idea as such has been (and still is) very influential in the fringe culture  starting in the mid twentieth century with such as the seminal beat poet William S. Burroughs, continuing through the chaos magic of the 1980’s onward, Hakim Bey’s highly influential Temporary Autonomous Zone,  cyberculture, cutting edge music from about the 1990s onward. The phrase is used as a maxim or axiom. The point is that the philosophy is more or less analogous to that of ataraxia and the axiom is analogous to the ataraxiom.

Chaos philosophy – With its germination in the late 1970’s and with publications beginning in the 1980s, so-called chaos magic updates the philosophies behind ritual magic with the realizations mentioned above from quantum physics, Godel and skepticism. Because magic applies philosophy towards ritual magic with the aim to bring about change in the magician and his world, chaos magic applies an active form of ataraxia. Not content with theoretical uncertainty, it gets its hands dirty and uses it as a tool to achieve desired ends. It takes Hassan-i-Sabbah’s maxim and says that since anything is possible, let us make it happen.

“In Chaos Magic, beliefs are not seen as ends in themselves, but as tools for creating desired effects. To fully realize this is to face a terrible freedom in which Nothing is True and Everything Is Permitted, which is to say that everything is possible, there are no certainties…

…Magic appeals to those with a great deal of hubris and a fertile imagination coupled with a strong suspicion that both reality and human condition have a game like quality. The game is open ended, and plays itself for amusement. Players can make up their own rules to some extent, and cheat by using parapsychology if desired. A magician is one who has sold his soul for the chance of participating more fully in reality. Only when nothing is true, and the idea of a true self is abandoned, does everything become permitted. There is some accuracy in the Faust myth, but he failed to take it to its logical conclusion.

   The realisation [sic] that belief is a tool rather than an end in itself has immense consequences if fully accepted. Within the limits set by physical possibility, and these limits are wider and more malleable than most people believe, one can make real any beliefs one chooses, including contradictionary [sic] beliefs.

   So welcome to the Kali Yuga of the Pandaemonaeon wherein nothing is true and everything is permissible. For in these post-absolutist days it is better to build upon the shifting sands than the rock which will confound you on the day it shatters…It is vain to seek solid ground on which to stand. Solidity is an illusion, as is the foot which stands on it, and the self which thinks it owns either is the most transparent illusion of all…Sacrifice Truth for Freedom at every opportunity…Hell is the condition of having no alternatives.

   Reject then the obscenities of contrived uniformity, order and purpose. Turn and face the tidal wave of Chaos from which philosophers have been fleeing in terror for millennia. Leap in and come out surfing its crest, sporting amidst the limitless weirdness and mystery in all things, for those who reject false certainties. Thank Chaos we shall never exhaust it. Create, destroy, enjoy, IO CHAOS!” 7  

New Philosophers – the same skepticism of classical philosophy is stressed by the vital philosophers of the twentieth century including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary PH.D., Robert Anton Wilson, Dischordianism, Terence McKenna and more. Many of those of the later half of the twentieth century place importance on Hassan’s maxim. More importantly they have the same life-affirming attitude that indeterminacy opens the way to tranquility, to ataraxia. To this extent, we can say that they held an ataraxiom.




1. It can be fairly argued that this statement is logically contradictory. While the highest wisdom is always paradoxical, we need not maintain that Socrates was being mystical. The phrase “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.” is actually a mistranslation. The phrase is from Plato’s Apology;

οὖτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴμαι
This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing [anything]. On the other hand, I – equally ignorant – do not believe [that I know anything].

Rather than saying that Socrates knew for certain that he knew nothing, Plato actually wrote that Socrates is not certain of anything.

2. A Comparative History of Ideas by Hajime Nakamura page 162 – 165.

3. On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems by Kurt Gödel

4. Digha-nikaya, II, 31 vol. I, p. 58.

5. A History of Western Philosophy and its connection with political and social circumstances from the earliest times to the present day by Bertrand Russell (page 743)           

6. The Confucian Analects (attributed to Confucius, 551 BC – 479 BC)

7. Liber Kaos, Peter J. Carroll

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