Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism
[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]
Table of Contents
- The four facets of a human being
- The mystical facet in practice
- Religiosity and mysticism
- Moderation through knowledge
- Hubris, mythology, and ordinary experiences
- Myth as technology
- Who should encode and decode myths
Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. This video is a continuation of my last presentation about the living universe and specifically the meaning of the words “cosmos” and “logos”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-05-cosmos-logos-living-universe/.
Today’s video will introduce concepts such as “mysticism” or the “mystical” facet of the human experience. I understand these are heavily loaded terms and it can be tricky to overcome some preconceived notions. Still, I ask that you keep an open mind as we approach this subject with a clear philosophical intent.
Suffice to say, here at the outset, that mysticism and related concepts are not the same as occult rituals and beliefs in the supernatural, superstitions or such mumbo jumbo, and the like.
As with the previous presentation, I will start with some definitions. It is important to explain how I will be using certain terms, so that we are all on the same page. Then I will gradually substantiate the claim that humans have a mystical side that they can develop, effectively broadening their perspective about the oneness of the living universe.
Mystery (Μυστήριο): It is a noun derived from a word that practically means initiation to a given field of knowledge or tradition. Other meanings of “mystery” include that which is secret or obscure. Secrecy and obscurity are interesting occurrences in this context. If you think about it, they are the inverse of knowledge because when you do not understand something, when you lack the requisite analytical framework, the subject appears alien to you even though it is not inherently unintelligible. For example, when an average computer user is presented with the source code of a program they feel it is all a mystery to them because they lack the requisite training. Thus the mysteries presuppose knowledge and the lack of such knowledge gives the impression of obscurity.
Mystic (Μύστης): The person who has been initiated in a given field of knowledge or tradition, who holds the knowledge and continues the tradition. Do not conflate this with “mystique” which describes a situation characterised by mystery (as explained above).
Myth (Mythos/Μύθος): That which is communicated or taught. The narrative. It also describes a tale or invented story whose primary function is to teach some deeper meaning and secondarily to entertain the audience.
Ataraxia (Αταραξία): A state of non-disturbance or else tranquillity. This relates to one’s overall disposition where they have established inner harmony and are no longer compelled to act on the basis of instincts or emotions. In a sense, ataraxia is freedom of the highest order: freedom from control.
Hubris (Ύβρις): The brand of cockiness that does not recognise the boundaries within which human experience must unfold.
Psychagogia (Ψυχαγωγία): This literally means “entertainment” though we must break it down to its constituents to appreciate its significance. We have “psyche” (the soul or vital force or inner world which is studied, e.g., by psychology) and “agoge” which is education, upbringing, or guidance (e.g. pedagogy (παιδαγωγία)—the education of [young] people). In this sense, entertainment is not simply about passing our time and casually having fun. Rather, it entails the normative view that culture ought to teach or inspire us to be the best version of ourselves. Psychagogia must prepare people to aspire to their highest. Education is then used to communicate profound lessons, to initiate people in some tradition or school of thought. This is best done in a way that is fun and enjoyable, because keeping it interesting helps with the communicative aspect. So we can see the connection with the ordinary sense of “entertainment”.
The four facets of a human being
Let us analyse the general features of a human being. By “analyse” I mean to construct a mental representation of patterns in the world and treat them as if they had a standalone presence. These analytical constructs are parts of the same system: we cannot have one without the others and expect the same results.
The human experience can initially be divided in three facets: (i) body, (ii) emotions, (iii) mind. All humans have those. Of the three, the body is the most developed. It consists of all the instincts and the mechanisms that regulate one’s presence. For example, a human knows how to breath without further instruction. Then come the emotions. These are like the body, in the sense that they are well developed, though they can be trained to be in concert with rational action. And then we have the mind, which describes the faculties we possess for computation, pattern-matching, reasoning, and the like.
All three influence each other. A healthy body maintains a balance that produces pleasant emotions or at least does not generate feelings that are self-destructive. This, in turn, helps the mind stay focused on thinking things through. Conversely, an unhealthy body engenders emotions that can hurt us and, by extension, the mind is no longer capable of focusing on its tasks.
The relationship between those three is circular. If the mind is obsessed with something that is unattainable, it will eventually contribute to feelings of failure, worthlessness, disappointment, and those will contribute to processes in the body that adapt various subsystems of the organism to the new equilibrium of overall negativity. We can see this at play with diseases such as depression which is typically considered a mental condition though it necessarily has to influence all three facets as they do not have a standalone presence.
This circularity is noticeable even through minor injuries, as the person tends to obsess over the wound and can be a bit paranoid about it: the mind no longer performs optimally, the emotions involve frustration and a general pessimistic outlook, and the body obviously suffers from the injury. Same principle for one’s diet, everyday routines, and levels of activity: the circularity is there.
Notice how the heading of this section references four facets yet I have only described three of them. Which is the fourth one? It is the mystical side which can be described as potentially superordinate to the previous three though, again, they are all part of the same system. The mystical involves training, the accumulation of knowledge, and the ability to use the insights derived therefrom to establish harmony between the facets of the human experience.
The mystical is associated with notions of enlightenment because (i) it initially is the least developed of a human’s facets, and (ii) can be applied to direct the other three facets.
Remember what we said about terms such as “mystery”: they pertain to the introduction to a given field of knowledge or tradition. Without this initiation, the mystical facet is obscure and would appear as unapproachable or mysterious in the sense of weird and alien.
We can get glimpses of the mystical facet of a human being in action by observing differences in behaviour between kids and adults. Both groups share the same dispositions and faculties, though the latter is more likely to have accumulated knowledge which is applied in the given situation to make the correct judgement call. This is the hint we need, as it tells us that more and better training, the appropriate initiation, can bring us closer to this ideal of having the right perspective and making the correct decisions.
The mystical facet in practice
Consider what I covered in my previous video about Cosmos, Logos, and the living universe. I basically claimed that the universe has the same features of ratio, rate, reason, language, and order that we have. The mystical realisation then, is that humans are not the epicentre of the world. Neither individually, nor collectively. Rather, they are parts of the greater whole, just as everything else from particles to galaxies and anything in between or beyond.
Why is this a mystical realisation, you may wonder? Because it involves deep knowledge of the world—remember the meaning of “mystery” as initiation. This knowledge is not something we get without considerable effort. We have the potential for it, but we have to develop it. Compare that to the instinct of self-preservation: it is there from day one and already is well developed.
Without the mystical facet, our body governs our world-view, as it conditions us to a state of egocentrism. We start from the survival instinct and so we treat everything in terms of how it relates to us: everything is a means to the end of surviving. As we learn about our self, which involves learning about the others, given that no human has a standalone presence, we begin to sense how egocentrism is misleading: we are not alone.
As we develop the mystical facet, we essentially discover the others, which provides us with a new perspective on selfhood. Instead of thinking of our self as the epicentre, we understand that it is yet another node in a distributed system of coexisting forms of being. The sense of a centre with everything revolving around it is an illusion. Yes, that illusion helps us live but it cannot be left in charge of things. It has to be controlled by a more refined instrument, so to speak. So we move from the subjective to the intersubjective: we think in terms of relations and our role in the greater whole.
Developing the mystical facet has the effect of reducing the overall influence of the other facets on the human’s conduct. The mystic, which is the person who is involved in mysticism, who has been initiated to the mysteries—the profound knowledge, as we said—is no longer compelled to act on instinct or emotion. The mystic has perspective of the bigger picture, which necessarily brings about harmony.
To put it in practical terms, the mystic does not need validation from others, such as in the form of fame or glory, because they understand these are trivial concerns in the grand scheme of things. The mystic cannot be disturbed by the lack of such validation: they are indifferent towards it because they know it is inconsequential.
Consider how egoist many behavioural patterns of humans are. Such as the all too common altercations that start with something like this:
- No, you move!
- What did you say?
- Do you know who I am?
You get the idea. The same mechanics are at work when humans try to out-compete each other over issues such as who has the most expensive car, who gets the most followers on social media, whose career is the most successful, and so on.
The mystic knows that these preoccupations keep us trapped in a cycle where the body, emotions, and mind influence each other without direction or structure. There is no overarching sense of stability, of couching those three facets in terms of a superordinate one which holds them in check and keeps them functioning in concert.
In this regard, the mystic is not attached to their self and to everything that appears as an extension of selfhood. They are not egocentric. For example, they are not concerned whether their project is perceived as successful or not. The mystic’s commitment to the quest for knowledge appears outwardly as aloofness from the fray, as if they are there without being there.
This sort of indifference comes from a position of knowledge. It is not the same as a casual claim that “I don’t care”. Rather, it involves profound realisation of the factors at play. It is about being able to look at the bigger picture and understand how things relate to each other, which necessarily includes the view of the person’s role in the universe.
It is the ataraxia I mentioned earlier. The state of non-disturbance that one can reach—or at least work towards—through training. To outsiders, the person who is at that stage or approximating it will seem utterly strange, obscure, alien. It is the dual meaning of “mystery”, as we have already discussed.
Religiosity and mysticism
At this point it is important to stress that mysticism is not about transcending the human experience as a human. That involves the impossibility of trying to overcome the body while being embodied, to escape from emotions and sense impressions while having faculties of emotion and sense impression, to accumulate and use knowledge with the means at one’s disposal while wanting to go beyond them.
Mysticism then is not about becoming a non-human human, but rather aspiring to our highest. To be the most refined version of what humanity has to offer. This is where religion and religiosity come into the picture. We can think of the religious experience in two broad terms, based on historical evidence:
Religion without mystical underpinnings: This is the same sort of egoism I mentioned earlier, where humans find reasons to fight each other. Religion is thus weaponised in the service of ulterior goals. Hence wars over religion, proselytism through fire and steel, witch hunts, inquisitions, intolerance of other beliefs, and the like.
Religion as a conduit to mystery: This is the understanding of religiosity as a way to enrich the human experience. It can help people have a sense of the bigger picture and learn how they are part of a greater whole. In this regard, religion is not about dividing people into groups or clans, as it were, but showing them that despite superficial differences, there is something which is common in the multitude; something we can all understand.
When we are on the path of knowledge, we no longer see religion as an obstacle to enlightenment. Instead, we treat it as yet another innovation of humanity, whose purpose is to store and disseminate knowledge in a form that is understandable even by those who do not have time for intensive training.
To the mystic, religion is not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather presents a corpus of work that can facilitate the development of the mystical facet of a human being. This is not about following religious practices to the letter, such as the ceremonies or the prayers. There is a deeper understanding of what those signify, what their real purpose is, which is not about adherence to themselves. They are not the goal.
Religion is a problem only when it is devoid of knowledge. When it becomes a dogma that one must follow to the letter without appreciation of its underlying values or hidden meanings. Though this is true not just for religion, but everything humans may associated themselves with. Think, for example, of football fans and hooliganism.
Again, one must have a sense of perspective.
Moderation through knowledge
Since we cannot become non-human humans, mysticism is all about elevating the human experience to its highest potential. We cannot do that by trying to become purely rational, or fully emotional, or only bodily. Remember that those are part of the same system. One cannot exist without the others. Instead of prioritising one over the others, we must work towards achieving harmony between them, where none overpowers the other two. This is what the mystical facet does. The fourth component that binds the other three in harmony. To this end, we have some profound insights that come to us from the ancient Greek religion. Specifically the temple of Apollo in Delphi (an area in Greece) from where we get those three maxims:
- Know yourself (Γνώθι σεαυτόν)
- Nothing in excess (Μηδέν άγαν)
- Ensure, ruin nears (Εγγύα, πάρα δ’Άτα) [EDIT: I talk a bit about the translation in the video. ]
Apollo was the god of harmony. This symbolism is no coincidence. It captures an archetype, a view of the world that we keep encountering regardless of the particularities of the case.
The three maxims must be read together in light of how we understand the Cosmos. To know yourself you have to learn about the whole, because you do not have a standalone presence. There is no such thing as, say, a decontextualised conscience that can understand itself in a vacuum. There is the fully fledged human kind, a system of systems in its own right, which coexists with everything in its immediate environment and the supersystems that envelop it. One can only begin to gain knowledge of their self by finding the others (other forms of life, not humans in particular). This is a lifelong commitment to selfhood as non-self-centred-ness. One cannot be certain of their findings though, as that is reckless: it is an implicit claim of knowing about the whole through partial information. Unflinching certainty undoes what one is trying to achieve.
As for doing nothing in excess, this is what we already found by examining the facets of a human, where we realised that we cannot amplify one over the others. There has to be a balance, a virtuous midpoint. As each person is different, the balance is not the same for everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all, if you will. Instead, each person has to learn about who they are, in the sense I already explained, in order to be in a position of finding their own midpoint.
Furthermore, we can discern how moderation, in its uncertainty about the absolutes, relates to ataraxia. If you cling on to something such as social validation, then you are exaggerating its significance in the grand scheme of things: you are doing things in excess as you are attaching value to them when they do not deserve it.
Hubris, mythology, and ordinary experiences
The word “hubris” describes the deviation from what ought to be a moderate disposition. In a sense, to commit hubris is to lack harmony, to not understand the archetype symbolised by Apollo. In Greek mythology there are lots of stories about humans who overestimated their abilities and who had to suffer the consequences of their lack of judgement, of their insolence.
One such example which I will also reference again further below, is Odysseas or Ulysses, the protagonist of Homer’s Odyssey, who was travelling back home after the Trojan war and was captured by a monster known as a cyclops. Odysseas managed to escape from the cyclops but instead of heading home he chose to brag about it and permanently injure the cyclops. This brought about the wrath of the cyclops’ father, Poseidon who is the god of the seas, which forced Odysseas to travel for ten years instead of what should have been a short trip.
The details do not matter right now. The point is that the protagonist of the story did not recognise the boundaries of his existence and thus had to suffer from his lack of foresight or perspective.
We should not think of hubris as punishment from the gods. This is just a metaphor, a story that is easy to convey. We must instead focus on the meaning of a balanced attitude and of avoiding excesses. Think about everyday experiences. Too little food deprives you of the energy you need to be effective in whatever you are doing. Too much food makes you sick. Both of those extremes are a form of hubris: you need to eat the right amount of food and the right kind of food.
Same principle for everything we do. Let’s say you are out hiking. You must know what your abilities are but also what specific requirements the terrain has as well as what the weather demands. Otherwise you cannot know what the right balance is. If you are super confident in your abilities without accounting for the prevailing conditions, if you are certain even though you do not really know how things stand, that will lead to your ruin such as in the form of a severe injury.
We see then that hubris is not about some abstract theological considerations or even an artistic device to forward a narrative. It is directly applicable to our quotidian life. Which can only make us wonder about the utility of myths as a medium and of mythology as a source of knowledge.
Myth as technology
In our age the word “myth” is equivalent to a fabricated story or, more broadly, a falsehood. For example, we hear about attempts at “myth busting” which are supposed to shed light on how things actually are. In other words, myths and mythology are largely considered undesirable.
As with all great lies, this view is based on a kernel of truth. Yes, myths are fabricated stories. Of course they are. They do not necessarily correspond to some historical fact and they do not have to take place in an actual country or whatnot. But they are not lies either. Because their verity is not about what they say in literal terms, but what they mean beyond the superficialities of appearance, of the narrative.
You must understand that myths are a form of ancient technology. An invention that has helped humanity flourish. Myths have mnemonic value. They are easy to remember. This makes them suitable for even the most low-tech civilisation to store knowledge in a highly resilient and interoperable format and also to disseminate it effectively. A myth can contain a rich corpus of work whose meanings are condensed in schematic representations. Put differently, a myth is like a compressed file that we need to unpack with the right tools in order to decipher the knowledge contained within.
Consider, again the scene of the Odyssey I mentioned in the previous section. Our protagonist, Odysseas or Ulysses, is captured by a cyclops: a giant who towers over ordinary humans. The cyclops possesses a single eye on its forehead. This kind of description serves as a mnemonic device, a symbol we can always recall—even as young kids or especially as young kids because of the impression it leaves on us. The cyclops holds Odysseas and his companions captive inside its cave. It is preparing to make a lunch out of them. The protagonist cannot possibly challenge the beast to a one-on-one combat: that would result in certain death. Instead, Odysseas must use his mind to outsmart this formidable foe. The details of the story do not matter right now.
What we learn then just from this is that when faced with seemingly impossible odds, we should not panic or give up but instead think carefully about a strategy that will lead us out of the allegorical cave. How many times do we need this attitude in life? In times of desperation and crisis. Is it not true that calmness and clarity of mind can help us circumvent obstacles that would otherwise be impossible to overcome? So instead of being superficial and making fun of people for believing that a cyclops is real—which is silly—we must keep an open mind and understand what the myth is trying to teach us. The best myths do not concern themselves with mundane details. Instead they codify knowledge of patterns that we encounter over and over again regardless of age and culture.
Continuing with this theme of myth as technology we must draw a distinction between “ancient” and “outdated”. Myths are a primeval invention but they remain as relevant as ever, including through art and religiosity. Even in this age of advanced technology we employ mythological practices as part of our culture. Maybe we don’t describe them in those terms, but the essence is there. Think, for example, how important fiction is in our life. It is part of how we socialise, communicate ideas, and support our lifelong education.
Take Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings as a case in point. Superficially, we have an adventure with medieval weaponry and magic that involves humans, orcs, dragons, and other creatures. It is fun to read the books or watch the movies. Though the narrative is not simply about what happens with the ring of power in some fantasy land, as it holds teachings which are directly applicable to our world. Is it not true that a person who wields too much power can be dangerous? And is that not why we want, at least in principle, to have forms of governance that distribute competences across more than one person or a few people?
Every myth has a lot to teach, so I am in no way exhausting the topic with this example. The point is that Tolkien uses the metaphor of a magic ring to describe, among others, the complexity of factors that inform hierarchical forms of organisation. Just how Plato used the myth of another magic ring (the Ring of Gyges) to elaborate on matters of morality and justice.
Who should encode and decode myths
I noted that myths are like compressed files that we need to unpack using the right tools. If we do not do this right, we will reach false conclusions, just like how we get a garbled output on the computer when we do not decode a file properly. Myths have a discursive aspect to them, they are narratives, meaning that the function of the decoder has to be performed by a person who has knowledge of the subject matter.
Same principle for the creation of myths. Anyone can come up with an imaginary story, but only those who already have insight can encode profound meanings in metaphors or allegories. Thus myths are not inherently didactic qua myths. They can be didactic if they embed knowledge, if they contribute to psychagogia as mentioned earlier. And they are at their best when the meaning they communicate helps us aspire to our highest. Which means that the right person to encode and decode myths is one who is on the path of mystery (in the sense we have already described): the mystic.
There are myths which do not necessarily help us escape from mediocrity. For example, I remember having to watch a Batman movie whose title I have since forgotten. In the opening part of the story, it is mentioned that the parents of the Batman are the ones who built the city’s public transport network. They were rich and just wanted to improve the life of their fellow citizens, which on the face of it is a noble act. Yet one is left to wonder why are there such egregious inequalities in that city. Why can’t the citizens build their own public transport? Do they lack the resources? Perhaps those resources are in the hands of a tiny minority of plutocrats including the Batman’s parents? There are so many questions, which leave us thinking whether accepting the status quo of that city is indeed a lesson worth having. Does the myth inspire us to overcome egocentrism? Or is it a form of indoctrination that holds us captive to a state of affairs that is reducible to egoism, recklessness, hubris?
I am not criticising the Batman story at-large, as the expanded lore may address those concerns. The point is that we should not take myths at face value and should refrain from considering them useful in advance. Myths are yet another tool we have. A form of technology. They are not the only one. Each case calls for its own approach. We need the right tool for the job. In practical terms, we must not blithely abandon the language we use to do science, for example, or deal with legal affairs, and instead delve into incessant mythologising. We don’t want that. We don’t want to imply any of that.
The key is to keep an open mind. Continue searching for knowledge, do not fall into the trap of absolute certainty, and try to learn who we are in relation to all there is. Find the balance. Seek and ultimately befriend wisdom, for that is what “philosophy” means.