On Nietzsche’s Search for Happiness and Joy: Thinking with Epicurus

Author: Keith Ansell-Pearson

Believe me, real joy is a serious matter (Seneca, 23rd Letter to Lucilius).

As Richard Bett has noted, Nietzsche likes to give the impression that he is against happiness altogether.[1]  A well-known aphorism in a late text, Twilight of the Idols, is typical in this regard:  “Humanity does not strive for happiness; only the English do that” (TI “Maxims and Arrows”, 12).[2]  However, an examination of Nietzsche, especially of the neglected middle period texts, can show that he is deeply concerned with the fate of happiness and also that he develops rich conceptions of pleasure and joy. In the following I explore various renditions of happiness and joy in Nietzsche’s writings, offering a series of perspectives on the topic.  I want to begin with an aphorism from The Gay Science, number, 45, and simply entitled “Epicurus.”  It is a reflection on the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity; so let me begin there.

The Happiness of the Afternoon of Antiquity[3]

Nietzsche writes that he is proud of the fact that he experiences the character of Epicurus differently from perhaps everybody else:  “Whatever I hear or read of him, I enjoy the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity.” In this aphorism, simply entitled “Epicurus,” Nietzsche writes:

I see his eyes gaze upon a wide, white sea, across rocks at the shore that are bathed in sunlight, while large and small animals are playing in this light, as secure and calm as the light and his eyes. Such happiness could be invented only by a man who was suffering continually. It is the happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of existence become calm, and now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea. Never before has voluptuousness (Wollust) been so modest.[4]

As Monika Langer has noted in her interpretation of this aphorism, although clearly a paean of sorts to Epicurus, Nietzsche does not elaborate on the origin or nature of his happiness and suffering, but rather tacitly encourages the reader to consider various possibilities. In the end she argues that Nietzsche is reading Epicurus as a figure who whilst standing securely on firm ground, gazes at the sea and is able to enjoy the possibility of uncertainty it offers.  She writes, “Literally and figuratively he can float on the sea.”[5]  Epicurus is depicted as the antithesis of modernity’s shipwrecked man since such is his liberation and serenity he can “chart his course or simply set sail and let the wind determine his way.”[6] Although he might suffer shipwreck and drown or survive he does not live in fear of dangers and hazards: “In taking to the sea he might lose his bearings and even his mind.”  In contrast to modern man who is keen to leave behind the insecurity of the sea for the safety of dry land, “Epicurus delights in the ever present possibility of leaving that secure land for the perils of the sea.”[7]

This interpretation misses the essential insight Nietzsche is developing into Epicurus in the aphorism.  Rather than suggesting that the sea calls for further and continued exploration, hiding seductive dangers that Epicurus would not be afraid of, Nietzsche seems to hold to the view that Epicurus is the seasoned traveller of the soul who has no desire to travel anymore and for whom the meaning of the sea has changed. Rather than serving as a means of transportation or something that beckons us towards other shores, the sea has become an object of contemplation in the here and now.  It is something to be looked at for its own sake and in a way that discloses its infinite nuances and colours. The scene Nietzsche depicts is one of Epicurean illumination or enlightenment: Epicurus is not estranged from nature and recognizes his kinship with animals and the elements of nature. Rather than deploying his contemplation of the sea to bolster his own ego (thinking of his own safety or taking pride in fearlessness), Epicurus abandons his sense of self altogether so that he can open himself up to the sea of existence. Unlike Christ, Epicurus does not walk on the water but floats serenely on the sea, buoyed up by it and even cradled by it, happy with the gifts life has to offer, and existing beyond fear and anxiety even though he is opening himself up to troubling realities, such as the approach of death and his personal extinction: “We are born once and cannot be born twice, but we must be no more for all time.”[8]  As Langer rightly notes, the imagery deployed in the aphorism is striking:  far from evoking boredom the serenity of Epicurus signals a kind of ecstatic bliss.[9]

In The Gay Science 45 Nietzsche makes a specific contribution to our understanding of Epicurean happiness or ataraxia. According to the portrait of Epicurus he provides this happiness is hard-won and has a precarious character, being inseparable from suffering: the sea of existence has become calm but, as Bett puts it, “its continued calmness cannot be guaranteed, and the “shuddering skin of the sea” is a constant reminder of the turmoil that may return.”[10]

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