Many of our utterances carry much more than their literal meaning.

Suppose I am hosting a dinner party at 7pm. At 4pm, one of my guests texts me, “I’m free from 6pm”. From that, I will understand, “I’m free from 6pm and I’d like to arrive early if that’s OK?”

As the evening progresses, another of the guests says something horribly rude. I respond with, “So, what did you think about the fish?” From this, my guest ought to understand that he has overstepped the mark.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that I am conveying much more than the words on the page. As a psychiatrist, I am acutely aware that my patients are disclosing much more than the face value of their words.

So, how do our words and sentences work so hard?

The British philosopher Paul Grice (d. 1988) attempted to answer this question by his theory of implicature.

Grice distinguished conventional implicatures, inherent in certain words such as “but”, “therefore”, and “indeed”, from conversational implicatures, which arise from a sort of game-playing, and rule-observing, between speakers.

Let me give you an example of each.

If I say, “She was poor but honest”, I am, by the simple use of the word “but”, also conveying or betraying a certain prejudice that poor people are generally dishonest.

A few hours before my dinner party, I bump into a friend while stepping out of a bakery with three loaves under my arm. My friend asks, “How are you?” To which I respond, “My first dinner party tonight!” By which she understands, “I’m excited because tonight I’m throwing a dinner party for the first time since the U.K. coronavirus lockdown.”

With conversational implicatures, our utterances can take on added meanings, or different meanings, according to the situation or context in which they are uttered.

When we speak to our partner in a crowded place, they are able to derive much more meaning from what we have said than the strangers who are also in earshot, in part because they are leaning upon background information that is privy only to the both of us. Our partner is capturing not only our words, but also how they fit in, and work with, push against, or wrap around, the world that we share.

More interesting, I think, is that non-literal meaning can also be created by pushing against certain general and deeply ingrained principles of communication and co-operation. In particular, meaningful conversation can only take place on the assumption that the speakers are, at least on an epistemic level, cooperating with one another.

Grice divided this so-called cooperative principle into four maxims of conversation:

  1. Maxim of quality: That utterances ought to be sincere, justified, and truthful.
  2. Maxim of quantity: That the right amount of information ought to be provided.
  3. Maxim of relevance: That the information provided is in some way pertinent.
  4. Maxim of manner: That the information provided is as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Whenever one or more of these maxims appears to have been flouted, we reflexively assume that the speaker must somehow have observed the maxims and start searching for a likely non-literal meaning.

In other words, implicature arises when the Gricean maxims are flouted, or would have been flouted had it not been for the implicature. Category examples of floutings that, by implicature, are not true floutings include irony (maxim of quality), metaphor (maxim of relevance), and euphemism (maxim of manner).

But, of course, the maxims are not invariably observed. Politicians in particular often flout the maxims, for instance, by answering a different question to the one asked, or providing a much longer answer when a simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed, or been preferable. In such cases, most of the interviewer’s interjections are, in effect, attempts to return the politician to the maxims.

Conversational implicatures serve a number of important functions such as: increasing the efficiency of communication; making communication more lively, varied, and humorous; and introducing ambiguity or restraint to avoid being ostracized or otherwise penalized for speaking hard truths.

But this slipperiness, this malleability, also gives rise to a number of ethical and legal problems—which is why legal contracts, witness statements, and the like are expected or even required to be as concrete and literal as possible.

More fundamentally, while we can be held responsible for what we say, to what extent can we be held responsible for what we implicate?

Today, many politicians resort to implicature, on Twitter and elsewhere, to get away with saying the unsayable.

In the words of the Persian poet Hafiz, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”

Ataraxia series

In my work as a psychiatrist, I help to treat mental disorder—and, I’m delighted to say, most of the people I see do get better.

But why stop here?

I believe that there is much more to mental health than the mere absence of mental disorder.

Mental health is not just about surviving, but about thriving, about developing and expressing our highest, fullest potential as human beings.

Before Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, Zeus and Jupiter and their ilk. But, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools, the major ones being cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism. Although each with its own outlook and method, all four schools aimed at the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is also the guiding principle of this series, with each book, like each philosophy, adopting a distinct but complementary approach to peace of mind: exploring the deep origins of our distress in The Meaning of Madness; guarding against the demons of self-deception in Hide and Seek; refining our emotions in Heaven and Hell; regulating our relations with others in For Better For Worse; and, finally, honing our thinking skills in Hypersanity.

To recap, the five books in the series are:

  1. The Meaning of Madness
  2. Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception
  3. Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions
  4. For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More
  5. Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking

Although the series is numbered, each book can happily stand on its own—meaning that you can read just one or all five, and in whichever order you like.

Ataraxia is closely linked with eudaimonia, which is often translated as ‘happiness’ but which is, in fact, a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing, or living a life that is worthwhile and fulfilling.

The stakes could not be higher.

[The first book in the series is currently free to download from Amazon.]

And why it is much better than happiness.


We all say we want to be happy, but the pursuit of happiness often seems like a wild goose chase.

Maybe the problem is not so much with us, or the world we live in, but with the very concept of happiness.

A much better concept, I think, is that of eudaimonia, which literally means ‘good soul’, ‘good spirit’, or ‘good god’.

Eudaimonia is often translated from Greek simply as ‘happiness’—but that is very misleading. The word ‘happy’, which is related to ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’, derives from the Norse happ for ‘chance’, ‘fortune’, or ‘luck’. From Irish to Greek, most European words for ‘happy’ originally meant something like ‘lucky’—one exception being Welsh, in which it originally meant ‘wise’.

Another word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ in Old English is gesælig, which, over the centuries, morphed into our ‘silly’.

Eudaimonia, in contrast, is anything but silly. It has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with hard work. It is a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept than happiness, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing or living a life that is worthwhile or fulfilling.

Many philosophical schools in antiquity thought of eudaimonia as the highest good, often even the very aim and purpose of philosophy, although various schools such as epicureanism and stoicism may have conceived of it in somewhat different terms.

What can be said is that, unlike happiness, eudaimonia is not an emotion but a state of being—or even, especially for Aristotle, a state of doing. As such, it is more stable and reliable, and cannot so easily be taken away from us. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the deepest kind, it does not come from pleasure, but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now.

Socrates on Eudaimonia

Socrates, it seems, equated eudaimonia with wisdom and virtue. In the Greater Alcibiades, he says that he who is not wise cannot be happy; in the Gorgias, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man; and in the Meno, that everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.

At his trial, in the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defence, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honour as possible, while not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. ‘Wealth’ he says, ‘does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.’

Socrates provided the ultimate proof that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man: When the jurors condemned him to death, they only made him and his ideas immortal—and he made sure not to stop them.

Plato on Eudaimonia

Plato broadly agreed with Socrates. In the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon argues that most people are fundamentally selfish, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the mythical Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave as it suited him:

No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

We behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful; while the unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything.

As part of his lengthy reply to Glaucon, Plato famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Plato argues that justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: If health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Plato, an unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational and ordered control of himself.

Aristotle on Eudaimonia

It is with Plato’s one-time student Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics that the concept of eudaimonia is most closely associated.

For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or should be.

Now, if one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.

What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? This ‘supreme good’, he replies, is eudaimonia, and eudaimonia only.

Fine, but what is eudaimonia? For Aristotle, it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. Thus, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’.

Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants, and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique and god-like capacity to reason. Thus, our supreme good is to lead a life that enables us to use and develop our reason, and that is in accordance with reason.

By living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to flourish, that is, to develop and express our full human potential, regardless of the ebb and flow of our good or bad fortune.

To put this in modern terms, if we develop our thinking skills, if we guard against lies and self-deception, if we train and master our emotions, we will, over the years, make better and better choices, do more and more meaningful things, and derive ever-increasing satisfaction from all that we have become and all that we have done, and are yet able to do.

And why it is the ultimate cool.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher

Prior to the advent of Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, but, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools.

The four major philosophical schools of Western antiquity were cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism.

Despite each having their own outlook and approach, all four schools emphasized the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Probably the best way of grasping at this concept of ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is by looking at how it fitted into each of the four schools.


The first cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (d. 365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes (d. 323 BCE), the paradigm of the cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him ‘a Socrates gone mad’.

Diogenes held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. In fact, the term ‘cynic’ derives from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. Rather than pursuing wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, partaking in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, which he called the ‘false coins morality’. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.’ He used to stroll about in broad daylight brandishing a lit lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’

I mean, honestly, how much cooler can you get?


Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes (d. 285 BCE), who renounced a large fortune to live the cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male dress and lived on equal terms with her husband.

By the first century, Cynics could be found in cities throughout the Roman Empire. At that time, cynicism vied with stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized perspective, self-control, and fortitude, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius and senator Cato the Younger among its adherents.

Zeno of Citium (d. 262 BCE), the founder of stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of stoicism.

Here are five thoughts on ataraxia from the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

  • You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
  • If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
  • The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
  • It is not death that a man should fear, but never beginning to live.
  • Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.


Skepticism and epicureanism also took off around the time of Alexander. Like the sophists whom he opposed, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia.

Pyrrho of Elis (d. 270 BCE) travelled with Alexander across Persia and into India, where he encountered various schools of thought, such as Hinduism and Buddhism and their sects, including the ‘naked wise men’ or gymnosophists, with a common emphasis on inner peace. After all, what is the Hindu nirvana if not complete ataraxia?

Blending East and West, Pyrrho came to believe that knowledge is impossible and urged suspension of judgement with the aim of exchanging anxiety and dogmatism for ataraxia.

The Pyrrhonian skeptic Sextus Empiricus (d. 210 CE) compared Pyrrho’s prescription for ataraxia to a real or fabled episode in the life of the painter Apelles of Kos. One day, Apelles was painting a horse but failed so completely to depict its froth that he gave up and flung his sponge at the picture—thereby accidentally achieving the desired effect.

In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus led to a resurgence of Pyrrhonian skepticism, and the work of Descartes—’I think therefore I am’, and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis… with roots in Ancient Athens and Ancient India.


Like Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure and least pain.

Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and ataraxia.

‘If thou wilt make a man happy’ said Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’