Ataraxia, allostasis, or resilience?

Ian McEwan’s fiction circles around the question: After an event has transformed my being in the world, what do I do now? How do I reorient myself to the world, to this new world from which I am estranged? His novels are novels of “adjustment” or “collapse.”

Suppose we’re aware of the tragic nature of the world. Then we might ask before we arrive at McEwan’s transformative event: How shall we immunize ourselves against the effects of tragedy? What is the best strategy for doing so?

I want to consider three proposals. First, the Stoical solution. The Hellenistic philosophers were more or less agreed that the aim of the good life was ataraxia (which can be translated, roughly, as freedom from mental disturbance). The Stoics held that ataraxia could be achieved in a three-fold manner:

  1. Grant fatalism its due. We have no power over events (let’s forgo magical thinking). These come and go of their own accord. In addition, the course of the universe is governed by fate. We are thus led to amor fati: We must love that which comes to pass and wish for nothing else.
  2. Do not value external goods. Health, wealth, and reputation are not ultimately within our control. They are at best “preferred indifferents.”
  3. Follow our moral purpose. Within our control is our faculty of willing. Let’s value this and no other.

These three principles, taken together, make up a recipe for self-sufficiency. Followed scrupulously, they seek to immunize the sage from experiencing tragedy at the same time that they supply him with the most excellent fruit: peace of mind.

Call the Stoic solution a “front end solution,” a systematic way of approaching luck before it arises. Unlike Stoicism, resilience is a “back end” approach. We are concert pianists, and one day we discover that we can no longer read music. Or we are novelists, and we wake up one morning without the ability to read. Or we are engineers who have lost our sense of sight. (I’ve taken these examples from Oliver Sack’s book, The Mind’s Eye.) One who is resilient finds, somehow, that he is able to “bounce back.” He summons courage and fortitude, resourcefulness and prudence, cunning and cleverness. He takes an obstacle, recasts it as a problem, and works out a solution–or a set of solutions or a battery of provisional strategies. Rather than breaking, he bends lithely. Where does such strength-in-bending come from? We do not know.

Now allostasis. This combines the static quality of Stoicism (meditate beforehand in order to remain calm) with the variability that gives rise to resiliency. By definition, “allo-stasis” involves maintaining stability through change. I suppose one might imagine a string vibrating harmonically: air passes over the string at various rates, and the string “thrives” by adjusting subtly or dramatically to the changing conditions. It needs to be emphasized that the string would not be musical unless there were change, and the string is given the “opportunity” to be “more musical” as a result of the changing rates.

The Stoical sage is an inner citadel. The resilient individual is a bending reed. The allostatic contemplative is a vibrating string. Which is the best solution to the problem of suffering? And which will likely make us the happiest?

(But then what does it mean to ask about “the best” and “the happiest”? Do these questions make any sense?)

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