As Ansell-Pearson suggests, rather than misreading Epicurus as a philosopher of indulgent hedonism, Nietzsche’s middle-period writings promote an ‘Epicurean-inspired care of self’ because he writes as if he regards pleasure as only useful insofar as it has the capacity to further one’s own cultivation (2013: 97). This position marks a convergence with Guyau, who says that even if pleasures are always good in themselves for Epicurus, they must be subordinated to a higher goal: happiness, and the cultivation of a beautiful life. Similarly, Nietzsche dismisses pleasures that have no therapeutic or self-cultivationary function as decadent, and his dismissals gain greater force in his unpublished writings of the 1880s. Several years earlier, in a passage that echoes Guyau’s critique of Cyrenaic hedonism, Nietzsche tells us that the problem with bestial or ‘animal’ pleasures is that they are ‘so strong that they reduce the intellect to silence or to servitude’ (GS §3) in a way that makes them incompatible with the intellectual self-cultivation of ‘higher types’. While those who deliberately suffuse their lives with such pleasures can readily identify with others who similarly ‘succumb to the passion of the belly [Leidenschaft des Bauches]’, for example, they ‘cannot comprehend’ why higher types strive to attain ‘objects whose value seems quite fantastic and arbitrary [such as] the passion for knowledge [Leidenschaft der Erkenntniss]’ (GS §3). Comments such as this support contention that, instead of promoting indulgent bodily pleasures for their own sake, Nietzsche’s ‘cultivation of modest pleasures’ has a primarily therapeutic purpose as it aims to ‘temper emotional and mental excess’ that according to Epicurus is naturally associated with unrestrained indulgence (Ansell-Pearson 2014a: 3).
Understanding middle-period Nietzsche as interested in Epicurus insofar as he regards the latter’s account of modest pleasure as a useful mode of self-cultivation, helps us to re-evaluate his later criticisms, while also showing how the target of these attacks has subtly changed. Although these attacks are directed towards Epicurus’ ethical ideal of ataraxia, none of these criticisms touch on those practices and virtues of self-cultivation that Nietzsche draws inspiration from in his middle-period work. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s final claims that Epicurus is the ‘antithesis of a Dionysian pessimist’, or that the modern-day Christian is actually ‘simply a kind of Epicurean’ (GS §370), may not be as severe as they first appear. As we have seen, in his later work, one of Nietzsche’s most cutting criticisms of Epicurus is that ethically he is a ‘proto-Christian’, whose teachings are only superior to latter-day Christianity because they are not supported by the implausible metaphysics of the Christian tradition. This suggests that although Nietzsche eventually renounces Epicurus, his post-1886 work could be said to remain influenced by him insofar as he as does not explicitly renounce a conception of ethical self-cultivation.
As we will see, Guyau’s revised-Epicureanism overlaps with Nietzsche insofar as he also picks up on philosophical practices of self-cultivation. For Guyau, not only does Epicureanism inspire a hidden history of philosophy stretching from Gassendi to Hobbes, from Spinoza to the French Moralists, but it also has the potential to underwrite a new revitalised version of Epicureanism for modern philosophy. As we will see, Guyau’s understanding of the self-cultivationary use of pleasure has much in common with Nietzsche’s work in the middle period.
Guyau’s Method in La Morale d’Épicure
Epicureanism is, for Guyau, a refined art of happiness through which we can liberate ourselves from the servitude to the passions, filling our lives with a superior form of beauty, in the same way that the artist creates a work of art which stands for itself. The emancipatory work of reason and aesthetics of existence form a single picture in Guyau’s view of Epicurus, for, as he says, the Epicurean sage ‘contemplates and admires this artwork which is simultaneously beautiful and rational’ (1878: 42). Before presenting Guyau’s view of the sage as the artist of happiness, who mobilizes pleasure as an instrument of a self-cultivationary process, let us introduce some of the particularities of Guyau’s demarche in La morale d’Épicure.
Guyau’s history of philosophy in La morale d’Épicure aims to be an untimely and engaged intervention in the philosophical debate of his time. Guyau draws comparisons between important positions in the ancient and modern debates, revealing similarities, hidden kinships, and continuities. Perhaps we could say that Guyau’s method also mobilizes a sort of prudent art of anachronism, reading ancient philosophy from the perspective of modernity, and vice-versa. Guyau’s procedure consists in allowing the contemporary to emerge in the surface of ancient, but also in allowing the ancient to emerge in the contemporary.