Great Politics and the Unnoticed Life: Nietzsche and Epicurus on the Boundaries of Cultivation

Author: Peter S. Groff

After virtually a century of neglect, Epicurus has in recent years come to be recognized for the significant influence he had on Nietzsche and the central, if ambivalent, place he holds in his thought.[1] Their affinities are many, but two points of intersection in particular deserve mention: a staunch opposition to metaphysico-moralistic interpretations of the world (Laurence Lampert situates them both in the “subterranean tradition” of philosophical naturalism)[2] and an understanding of philosophy as a ‘way of life’ (bios) or ‘art of living’ (technē tou biou).[3] As Keith Ansell-Pearson has pointed out, Epicurus looms largest in Nietzsche middle period works, where select aspects of his thought and life are valorized and appropriated: his vitality, modesty, “heroic-idyllic” mode of philosophizing, therapeutic technique of multiple explanations, embrace of a deathbound soul and rejection of an afterlife, pre-emptive war on Christianity and anticipation of a modern scientific, de-deified worldview.[4] This paper focuses on one aspect of Epicurus’ teachings that has as yet received little attention: his controversial advice to “live unnoticed” (lathe biōsas).[5] Nietzsche was familiar with this credo and took it to heart, but it ultimately stood at odds with, and lost out to, his irresistible temptation to engage in great politics. The following discussion is an attempt to track Nietzsche’s conflicted appreciation for the virtues of the unnoticed life.

A Buried Epicurean Teaching

As traditionally interpreted, the lathe biōsas doctrine counsels us to avoid the political life and opt instead for a quiet, sequestered life of contemplation. Most of what we know about it comes to us through doxographies and later critics of Epicurus, but one can nevertheless find similar sentiments scattered throughout the extant remains of his corpus.[6] For instance, he repeatedly warns against the limits of attaining security through other human beings (asphaleia ex anthrōpōn).[7] He urges his adherents not to seek happiness in fame or honor and to shun the multitude.[8] He contends that “the purest security is that which comes from a quiet life and withdrawal from the many.”[9] Elsewhere, he encourages his followers to “free themselves from  the prison of daily duties and politics” and not to get involved with the political life (me politeuesthai).[10]

Unsurprisingly, Epicurus’ doctrine of the hidden life was wildly unpopular in its time and has remained so to this day. It ran against the grain not only of common opinion (which placed great emphasis on traditional civic values, as well as reputation, honor, and fame), but also against the views of most philosophers. Socrates himself admittedly eschewed political offices, but nonetheless provided an even greater public service though his zetetic activities in the marketplace—ultimately, at the cost of his own life. Plato, envisioning the ideal coincidence of political power and wisdom in the wake of Socrates’ death, placed philosophers at the very center of the city as its rulers.[11] For Aristotle, the human being is the zōon politikon: human flourishing is simply impossible shorn of certain political advantages and perks, and even the optimal life of contemplation seems to require recognition and acknowledgment—an intellectual fame of sorts—from a community of expert knowers. And the Stoics, despite their famous withdrawal into the ‘inner citadel’, nonetheless acknowledged the duties we have to our communities as rational and virtuous beings, and so saw an ethical obligation to take part in politics.

Epicurus’ unapologetically apolitical stance represents such a striking divergence from the norm that it is sometimes explained away in historicist or psychologistic terms, e.g., as a function of the political malaise following Alexander the Great (the retreat from the polis to the individual), or a shortcoming of his character (excessive gentleness, softness, etc), or perhaps some pivotal traumatic episode that soured him on politics once and for all. But bearing in mind the comparably heretical status of Epicurus’ other teachings within the tradition, there’s no reason to assume that his rejection of the political requires an ad hoc explanation. As Geert Roskam has argued, it is nothing more nor less than a reasoned philosophical teaching proceeding from his fundamental commitment to pleasure as the highest good. Specifically, Roskam links it to three components of Epicurus’ ethical thought: (1) his therapeutic attempt to cure the soul of painful irrational fears and vain desires, (2) his analysis of desire (and consequent recognition that the desires for fame, honor, power, influence, or even to contribute to the public good are neither natural nor necessary), and (3) his prudential calculus of pleasure.[12] Put simply, if one seeks tranquility of the soul (ataraxia) and wishes to minimize mental anxiety, a private life off the radar is far preferable to a public, political one. But if the human being is for Epicurus not necessarily a political animal, we nonetheless require some degree of sociality to lead good lives. Hence Epicurus’ Garden: a small, relatively independent community of friends hidden away from the city and its empty distractions, engaged in revivifying philosophical therapy, cultivating themselves into god-like beings who live lives of quite, simple, stable, tranquil pleasure in accordance with the “deep-set boundary stone” of nature.[13] To understand the radical significance of the Garden for the philosophical life, it is necessary to place it against the background of Epicurus’ canonical antipode Plato, and his own attempt to resolve the tension between philosophy and the city.  As suggested above, Plato attempts, in the Republic at least, to accomplish this by dragging the philosophers from the margins of the polis to its very center as rulers. But as Socrates and his comrades construct their “Fine and Noble City” in speech, an even more beautiful counter-image repeatedly presents itself to them: the ancient dream of the “Blessed Isles,” where philosophers can dwell in contemplative peace apart from the wearisome, soul-grinding business of the state.[14] The best Socrates can do, though, is to dangle this primordial utopia in front of the philosopher-guardians as a vague promissory note while they grudgingly discharge their political duties. Epicurus’ Garden is in effect the ancient dream of the Blessed Isles made concrete, in the here and now.[15]

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