Author: Daniel Conway
This, in fact, is how that long period of sickness appears to me now: as it were, I discovered life anew, including myself; I tasted all good and even little things, as others cannot easily taste them—I turned my will to health, to life, into a philosophy.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Wise” 2
That Nietzsche meant to renew his allegiance to the pursuit of philosophy as a way of life is evident throughout Ecce Homo (1888). As his subtitle confirms, he is concerned in this book to demonstrate to his best readers “how one becomes what one is.” He does so, as we know, by urging them to “behold the man” he (supposedly) has become, precisely so that they might share in the therapeutic benefits that accrue to the way of life he now exemplifies. Although he sees fit on occasion to generalize from his own experiences, the warrant for the practical advice he dispenses rests solely on the value of the way of life he has perfected. That he has “turned out well” should be sufficient for the readers he seeks (EH “Wise” §2).
That Nietzsche also meant to renew his allegiance to Epicurus is similarly evident in Ecce Homo. As he introduces his readers to his new way of life, he rehearses a number of familiar Epicurean themes: a formula for happiness modeled on Epicurean ataraxia; a strict determination of what one can and cannot control, including the eventual expiration of one’s mortal soul; a therapeutic attunement to the “little things” in life; an elaboration of the remedies that enabled him (and may enable others) to convalesce; an appreciation of the necessity of fate and of the benefits of loving fate; a dispensation of practical advice, often in the form of easily repeated maxims; and a renewed effort to discredit the odious teaching of personal (i.e., soul-based) immortality. Much like Epicurus, in fact, Nietzsche recommends his way of life by offering its this-worldly fruits—behold the man!—as the only proof that would be needed by the readers he hopes to attract.
At the same time, however, Nietzsche’s plan to renew his allegiance to Epicurus is more complicated than it may appear. On the one hand, we know, his pre-Zarathustran writings are generally appreciative of Epicurus and his teachings. In Human, All Too Human, for example, Nietzsche praises Epicurus as “wisdom in bodily form” (HH II §224) and as “one of the greatest of men, the inventor of an heroic-idyllic mode of philosophizing” (HH II/2 §295). On the other hand, his post-Zarathustran writings suggest a dramatic revision of his previous estimation of Epicurus. After supposing that Epicurus may have been “afflicted” (BT “Attempt” §1, 4), and that his teachings appealed primarily to kindred “sufferers” (GM II §17), Nietzsche eventually diagnoses Epicurus as a “typical décadent,” whose “fear of pain, even of infinitely minute pain…can end in no other way than in a religion of love” (A §30). Despite its “generous admixture of Greek vitality and nervous energy,” in fact, Epicureanism is “most closely related” to the glad tidings of Jesus (A §30).
Rather than choose between these seemingly incompatible interpretations of Epicurus, Nietzsche combines them to produce the idealized self-presentation on display in Ecce Homo. On the one hand, he presents himself, like the Epicurus who appears in his pre-Zarathustran writings, as wisdom incarnate, i.e., as an exemplar of the philosophical way of life that he now recommends to his best readers. On the other hand, he also presents himself, like the Epicurus depicted in his post-Zarathustran writings, as a décadent, i.e., as burdened by an involuntary inheritance that he is powerless to master or disown. In Nietzsche’s own person, that is, we are urged to behold a contradiction or tension that may put us in mind of the Epicurus he has variously described.
Nietzsche’s aim in motivating this comparison is to highlight what he takes to be the crucial difference between them. Unlike Epicurus, who apparently had no choice but to accommodate his besetting decay, Nietzsche “opposes” his share in the décadence that grips the late modern epoch:
Apart from the fact that I am a décadent, I am also the opposite [Gegensatz]. My proof for this is, among other things, that I have always instinctively chosen the right means against wretched states; while the décadent typically chooses means that are disadvantageous for him. (EH “Wise” §2)
This is an important distinction for Nietzsche to mobilize, for he generally and consistently defines décadence as a condition in which one instinctively chooses what is least advantageous for one’s health and wellbeing. In light of this definition, in fact, his (avowed) ability to choose well for himself proves that he, as opposed to Epicurus, is basically healthy (EH “Wise” §2). As a result, he explains, his best readers need not fend for themselves. Translating his solitude and suffering into a positive program of therapeutic remedy, he invites his best readers to adopt Ecce Homo as their vade mecum.