What does this beautiful style that one imposes to one’s whole life consist in? Guyau says that for this work, beauty resides in harmony, that is, in a certain orderly relation of parts and whole, which connects the current instant and one’s entire lifespan; between the modest pleasures one chooses to affirm and the pains that one chooses to endure as means for a greater, more stable and lasting delight with one’s own existence. As Guyau explains:
In the same way that Epicurus’ conception [of pleasure] is greater and more complete than that of Aristippus, it is also more beautiful and yet more moral. From the aesthetic point of view, isn’t there beauty in this rational disposition of life, in this subordination of the parts to the whole? (1878:42).
The sage is an ‘artist of happiness’ whose task is to organize rationally emotions and pleasures throughout his life in a whole in which parts have a specific position and connection. Guyau found in Epicurus what Foucault would identify in ancient ethics in the 1980s, the idea of an aesthetics of existence, an understanding of ‘the bios as a material for an aesthetic piece of art’ (Foucault 1994: 260). Similarly, Guyau uses the metaphor of the painter to define this ‘artist of happiness’ painting emotions, pleasures and pains on the picture [cadre] of life, placing them in different planes, with different importance in it. As Guyau says:
Life then becomes this cadre of undetermined contours, in which the sage, this ‘artist of happiness’ [artiste de bonheur] groups his emotions to come, placing some of them in the second plane, some others in the first, bringing these to light, and casting the shadows of oblivion over the others.
The aesthetic value of the sage’s life does not point to irrationality or any form of irrationalistic aestheticism, but on the contrary to the harmony and rationality that the sage is able to create throughout his life. The aesthetic value, the beauty of the work comes from this rational order, this intelligent organization of a lifestyle, in which certain pleasures are cultivated, aiming at a superior happiness.
Guyau finds in the sage what Nietzsche in his middle-period works also found in Epicureanism, an art of existence which takes the form of a refined asceticism. In many ways this prefigures Nietzsche’s view of the Hellenistic schools as ‘experimental laboratories in which a considerable number of recipes for the art of living have been thoroughly practiced and lived to the hilt.’ For Guyau, the Epicurean recipe allows us to achieve a superlative form of pleasure by choosing less dangerous pleasures, which allows one to free oneself from the chaos and bondage to the passions. This form of blessedness is achieved in the contemplation of a coherent, consistent life oriented towards happiness. Unlike Guyau’s view of the Cyrenaics, and similarly to Nietzsche’s view of the task of giving style to one’s character (GS §290), the Epicurean sage is able to exercise self-control, and the composition of his life as a coherent totality could be understood as a power to create ‘[self]constraint and perfection under a law of [his] own’. In this sense, Guyau’s reading of Epicurus detaches pleasure from indulgent hedonism, integrating it into a whole economy of life by way of virtues and practices of self-cultivation. We claim that Guyau’s appropriation of the Epicurean art of living presages Foucault account of Greek ethics as a ‘care of the self’ in which the ancients ‘had a tekhne tou biou in which the economy of pleasure played a very large role. In this “art of life” the notion of exercising a perfect mastery on oneself soon became the main issue’ (Foucault 1986: 259).
Works by Jean-Marie Guyau
Guyau, J-M. (1875). Etude sur la Philosophie d’Épictète et traduction du Manuel d’Épictète. Paris: Delagrave.
—(1878). La morale d’Épicure et ses rapports avec les doctrines contemporaines. Paris: Germer Baillière et Cie.
—(1879). La morale anglaise contemporaine. Paris: Germer Baillière et Cie.
—(1881). Vers d’un philosophe. Paris: Germer Baillière et Cie.
—(1884). Les problèmes de l’esthétique contemporaine. Paris: Félix Alcan.
—(2012a) . Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction. Mit den Annotationen von Friedrich Nietzsche: Rekonstruktion der kritischen Lektüre von Friedrich Nietzsche mit Marginalien, Ilse Walther-Dulk (ed.). Weimar.
—(2012b). Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction: avec les textes de Nietzsche et Kropotkine. Biographie, préface, postface de Jordi Riba; Note polémique de Louis Janover. Paris: Payot et Rivages
—(1887). L’irréligion de l’avenir: Etude sociologique. Paris: Félix Alcan.
—(1888). L’art au point de vue sociologique. Paris: Félix Alcan.
—(1889). Éducation et hérédité: Etude sociologique. Paris: Félix Alcan. [Posthumously published; edited by A. Fouillée].
—(1890). La genèse de l’idée de temps. Paris: Félix Alcan. [Posthumously published; edited by A. Fouillée].
—(2010). A gênese da idéia de tempo e outros ensaios. Trans. R. Schöpke & M. Baladi. São Paulo: Martins Fontes.