We are now in a position to appreciate how Nietzsche arrived at his uniquely ambivalent estimation of Epicurus. As Nietzsche now understands, Epicurus was correct to pursue philosophy as a way of life and to extol ataraxia as the highest human good. Where he went astray, involuntarily and through no apparent fault of his own, was in his presentation of himself as an exemplar of this way of life. Like many or most teachers of virtue, that is, Epicurus mistakenly identified himself as a healer in his own right. Unbeknownst to him and his followers, moreover, he cultivated a clientele that was in fact self-selected by the incipient decay of its unsuspecting members. Desperate for a cure, they were content to overlook the difference, if they noticed it at all, between what was promised to them and what they actually received. For his part, Epicurus provided a garden of “modest” delights (GS §45), which served over time to quell their excitations and adjust their expectations.
Truth be told, the décadent clients of Epicurus were physiologically unsuited to the experience of katastematic pleasure, which is why he and they typically settled for ataraxia in name only. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Nietzsche derives no lasting criticism from his diagnosis of Epicurus as a “typical décadent.” Even though Epicurus was unable to provide his followers with a positive experience of pleasure, the privative experience he provided was ideally suited to their condition of physiological distress. Sometimes, as Mick Jagger has observed, you get what you need.
Continuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the flesh does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the flesh.
This is the least persuasive of the Sovran Maxims we will consider. Nevertheless, support for this maxim may be found in Nietzsche’s project of self-presentation in Ecce Homo.
Having conducted a lifelong study of pain and suffering, including the mnemotechnics that produce a lasting impression on souls otherwise lacking in memorial capacity (GM II §3), Nietzsche may seem to be an unlikely champion of this particular remedy. According to him, after all, we owe our acquired status as promise-making animals to the ritualized practice, perfected over the span of millennia, of inflicting excruciating doses of memory-enhancing pain. If it were the case that pain does not “last long in the flesh,” as this maxim asserts, we would not be persuaded by Nietzsche’s genealogical account of the acquisition of memory.
Still, three points bear noting. First, Nietzsche may be inclined to accept a strict, literal interpretation of the maxim in question. While pain is formative only if it is also enduring, he may be willing to concede that “pain does not last long in the flesh” when compared to the duration of pain in the soul or mind. As Nietzsche readily acknowledges, after all, a program of mnemotechnics is successful only insofar as the administration of physical suffering eventually produces (or translates into) psychological suffering. Physical cruelty that fails to touch the souls of its intended recipients may be enjoyable to inflict, as he allows, but it does not further nature’s plan to breed a memorial animal (GM II §1).
Second, Nietzsche correctly understood that human beings do not flee or eschew suffering per se, but only those instances of suffering that defy reasonable explanation and/or justification. If we believe that instances of pain and suffering make good sense, owing to their supposed necessity or instrumental value, we will gladly embrace them. As Nietzsche reveals, the genius of the ascetic priest lies precisely in his poetic capacity to spin a credible narrative, on the strength of which his sufferers come to see themselves as sinners, i.e., as fully deserving of the suffering they endure. In truth, the ascetic priest has only the one trick in his black bag: He urges his clients to scan their souls, searching for particular defects and flaws, and he helps them to find within themselves the source or cause of their discontents. Once placed within a trusty narrative context of justification, that is, even life-long torments will become tolerable, if not downright pleasurable.