In Proximity to Epicurus: Nietzsche’s Discovery of the Past Within

Author: Jill Marsden

We need history, for the past continues to flow within us in a hundred waves; we ourselves are, indeed, nothing but that which at every moment we sense of this continued flowing […]The last three centuries very probably still continue to live on, in all their cultural colours and cultural refractions, close beside us: they want only to be discovered. (AOM, 223)[1]

A few short millennia before the ocean of impersonal forces arrayed a small assortment of its parts into a man called Friedrich Nietzsche, it spent a little time disporting itself before the senses of Epicurus. It presented itself in the guise of the sea, and sky, and clouds, and mineral formations, as animals large and small, as ideas, as feelings, as specific kinds of thoughts and mood. Later when these impersonal forces folded some tiny part of themselves into Nietzsche, something of their past presence in Epicurus’s world stirred within his own:

Epicurus. – Yes, I am proud of the fact that I experience [empfinden] the character of Epicurus differently to perhaps anyone else, and enjoy in all that I read and hear of him the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity: – I see his eye gazing out on a vast, white sea, over the rocks along the shoreline where the sun lies, whilst big and small animals play in its light, secure and serene like this light and that eye itself. Such happiness could only have been invented by one who is suffering continually, the happiness of an eye looking out on a becalmed sea of existence and which can now no longer tire of its surface, and the colourful, tender, quivering skin of the sea. Never before has sensuality been so modest.  (GS 45)

Contemplating the delicate shuddering waves, Epicurus enjoys a serene happiness, which across the centuries will lap at the shore of a Genovese coast on another restful summer day (KSA 8/527/30[31]). “Experiencing the character” of the ancient Greek philosopher from Samos, Nietzsche writes from the Italian Riviera in 1881 as one who inhabits the atmosphere of the afternoon of antiquity, his physiology attuned to the constellation of affects named “Epicurus”. “Den Charakter Epikur’s anders .. empfinden” involves a physical encounter with “temperament” or “nature” (Charakter), “empfinden” meaning “to sense”, “perceive”, “feel”. In channelling these forces, Nietzsche feels an affinity of disposition, something more fundamental than intellectual empathy or philosophical debt. It is as if the ancient philosopher “lives on” in his thinking, confirming the declaration that he makes in the aphorism “The eternal Epicurus”: “Epicurus has lived at all times and is living still, unbeknown to those who have called and call themselves Epicurean, and without reputation amongst philosophers” (WS 227). When Nietzsche claims to experience the character of Epicurus differently to others, he may intend the point atavistically, as the awareness within himself of sensibilities from the past. [2]

In what follows, I explore what it might mean for Nietzsche to experience the character[3] of Epicurus and to “feel” powers of the past “within himself” (GS 10). A starting point will be to ask why he should envisage Epicurus by the shore, resting his eye upon the “sea of existence”. It is notable that another well-known passage in praise of Epicurus, “Et in Arcadia ego” (The Wanderer and his Shadow, 295), also evokes a particular landscape, atmosphere and time of day, here a sun-lit valley around half past five. Both pieces of writing concern the feeling of joy occasioned by the vividly detailed scene and both describe panoramas very familiar to Nietzsche from his European travels. Whilst these passages do not appear to contribute much to the scholarly task of evaluating Nietzsche’s relation to Epicurus, their focus on the climate and landscape of experience is instructive. It will be suggested that Nietzsche’s practice of philosophy develops in proximity to Epicurus in a very physical sense as part of a thinking relationship with the earth. Taking the “happiness of the afternoon of antiquity” as a clue, I trace a “thought path” that links Epicurus to the experience of amor fati as the affective precondition for Nietzsche’s eternal return.

That Nietzsche was preoccupied with the optimum climate and landscape for his thought is amply demonstrated by his private notes, letters and autobiographical reflections in addition to the copious references in his published works. Two texts from Nietzsche’s “middle period”, Dawn (1881) and The Gay Science (1882), were produced during his time on the Italian Riveria (the Liguria region). In Ecce Homo Nietzsche likens both the text of Dawn and its author to a basking sea beast, sunbathing amongst the rocks near to Genoa where “almost every sentence of that book was thought, hatched [erschlüpft]” (EH “Books”, D, 1). Alone and sharing ‘secrets with the sea” (EH “Books”, D, 1), the thinker’s ideas incubate in the warmth, abundant sentences unfold in the sun. In praise of this work site Nietzsche writes to Franz Overbeck:

I think so often about you, especially in the afternoon when almost every day I sit or lie in my secluded cliffs along the coast, resting like a lizard in the sun, while my thoughts embark on some adventure of the spirit. My diet and the division of the day should eventually do me good! Sea air and clear skies: now I see that these are indispensable to me! (KSB,6,57).

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