The Epicurean Sage and the Art of Life
According to Guyau, pleasure is the principle (the ‘key idea’) of Epicureanism, characterizing the ‘only end [fin] of desire’ (35). Following Guyau’s analysis, the enjoyment [jouissance] is good in itself and by itself, as well as all the means employed to achieve it. As Guyau explains, ‘it is useless to examine the ways by which enjoyment is obtained’, as well as the ‘sequence of circumstances that lead to the enjoyment of pleasure’ (36). In this regard, Epicurus’ doctrine is similar to that of Aristippus and the Cyrenaic school.
Guyau reconstructs Aristippus’ position as a form of radical hedonism, which could be synthesized through the idea of an absolute “fidelity” to the present moment, and consequently to the pleasure that is possible to achieve in each singular ephemeral fragment of the present. “Who knows what the future will be for us?” (p.36). For Aristippus, “the present alone is ours” (36). In this sense, we must subtract every thought involving duration and succession, making ourselves present to the actuality of enjoyment.
For Epicurus, we must consider pleasures and pains from the perspective of the whole of our lives (ho hólos bíos). Passions, drives and desires appear to us as completely dominant when considered in the present. If we consider them in time and, specifically from the perspective of the duration of a whole life, we can then evaluate their ethical significance and ultimately master them. Guyau explains this idea through an analogy: time is for our passions what space is for atoms. He says that as shocks and collisions of atoms are less violent and frequent in a vast space than they would be in a small space where atoms have less space to move freely; the same would be valid for our passions in the short and long term. When considered in the short span of the present they appear absolute and unconquerable. However, when pictured in the duration of our whole life, how violent and powerful can they actually be?
What is unique in Guyau’s interpretation of Epicurus resides in the way he conceives the temporality of pleasure and happiness. While authors from Nietzsche to Hadot have highlighted the value of the present instant in Epicureanism, Guyau shows that the recovery of the present moment, and the emphasis on the pleasure that can be found in the present, is not distinctive of Epicureanism. For Guyau, this distinctive character resides in a consideration of time that privileges the idea of the future when considering action in the present. Epicurean present must be traversed by the future, and both present and future converge in the composition of a ‘whole of life’. In Guyau’s reconstruction, the introduction of the notion of temporality is concomitant with the appearance of the concept of the sage, the figure who incarnates the concept of Epicurean pleasure and the consideration of ho hólos bíos. The sage is the moral agent that Epicureanism seeks to constitute; one which perhaps only Epicurus himself had fully embodied.
Pleasures and pains are viewed through the perspective of ‘the whole duration of a life’ (ho hólos bíos) and referred to a single telos, the achievement of happiness. The requirement for this achievement is that of coherence and consistence over time, and that is the existential decision of the sage. The Epicurean is not someone who indulges in undistinguishable pleasures – he is not the Cyrenaic hedonists who disperses themselves in a multitude of fleeting instants. The Epicurean sage is the one who chooses self-consistency over the chaos and contradiction of desires and passions, directing his or her ‘thought [and actions] towards the future’, one who cultivates the whole of her or his life as a work of difficult and laborious elaboration, a work to which he strives to give a rational and beautiful form.
For the sage, each moment is filtered through the contact with the single end, making the sage’s will concentrate and unitary, projecting itself beyond the present sensation. The present is thought through the future, which it helps to realize. Not a future life, but the future of this finite life, which depends on the rational measuring of present pains and pleasures, a future which is up to us to shape according to the intelligent principle of happiness. The sage is the expression of the Epicurean idea according to which ‘there is something superior to the present, a superior form of good which encompasses every particular good’ (41). This is why when the sage chooses a present pleasure, he does so considering it as a part in the process of the constitution of an organized, rational, totality – that of a beautiful life.
In this sense, Guyau emphasizes an aesthetic aspect of Epicurus’ moral philosophy. The unity and continuity in the axis of temporality – the production of a consistent way of life – could be understood as an ethical continuity of style. That is one of his points of contact with Nietzsche’s middle-period works. In the Gay Science, Nietzsche says that ‘One thing is needful – to “give style” to one’s character – a great and rare art!’ (GS §290). Just like for Guyau’s Epicurean sage, a single law, a single end and in Nietzsche’s case a single ‘taste’ governs the creation of oneself through constant work and cultivation: ‘In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small’ (GS §290).