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

Great Politics and the Platonic Philosopher-Legislator

There is an obvious sense in which Nietzsche can be said to share Epicurus’ dismissive views on the political. For instance, he repeatedly distances himself from the interests of the state even in his early writings: “he who has the furor philosophicus within him,” he writes, “will already no longer have time for the furor politicus and will wisely refrain from reading the newspapers every day, let alone working for a political party” (SE 7, p. 181).[16] And Nietzsche is forever reminding us of his disdain for the petty nationalistic politics of Bismarck’s Reich, pointing out that the growth of political and military power inevitably comes at the cost of cultural degeneration and “spiritual flattening” (geistige Verflachung).[17] In these respects, Nietzsche can perhaps fairly describe himself as “the last antipolitical German” (EH “Wise,” 3).[18] Of course, being antipolitisch is not the same as being unpolitisch—apolitical, indifferent to politics—an attitude that arguably aligns more closely with Epicurus’ maxim. Put differently, the relevant choice for Nietzsche is not between politics or no politics, but between small politics (kleine Politik) and great politics (grosse Politik).[19] Politics becomes great when an actual “revaluation of all values” is at stake, when it involves a cultural “war of spirits” (Geisterkrieg) rather than merely a crude power conflict over legal systems, economic policies, material resources or national boundaries (EH, “Destiny,” 1).

“It is only with me,” Nietzsche famously claims, “that the earth knows great politics” (ibid.). An immodest, self-mythologizing claim perhaps, since elsewhere he recognizes that initiating such world-transforming revaluations is precisely the true task of the philosopher:

Genuine philosophers, however, are commanders and legislators [Befehlende und Gesetzgeber]: they say, “thus it shall be!” They first determine the Whither and For What of humankind . . . With a creative hand they reach for the future and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating, their creating is a legislation, their will to truth is—will to power. (BGE 211)[20]

Interestingly, in the Nachlass drafts for this passage from 1884-85, Nietzsche even points to Plato and Muhammad as paradigmatic examples of commanders and legislators, despite the residual self-deception under which they were laboring. That is to say, Nietzsche sees these predecessors as involved in the same sort of transformative world-historical task that he himself is qua philosopher; they are simply less self-aware of the radically creative nature of their legislations.[21] And indeed, it seems particularly appropriate for Nietzsche to place himself in the lineage of Plato here, since the conception of philosophers as “commanders and legislators”—even prophets in the manner of Zarathustra—is itself a distinctly Platonic idea. Nietzsche’s nomothetic great politics can thus be understood as a late modern radicalization of Platonic political philosophy: specifically, the ideal coincidence of wisdom and political power epitomized by the philosopher-king.[22] His new philosophical legislators, however, do not pretend to transmit some preexistent universal Good to us, nor are they trying simply to realign the human soul with the rational and moral order of things; rather, they are bringing into being a new table of goods according to which humanity can live, and in doing so are experimentally attempting to transform humanity. They must accordingly prepare “great ventures and over-all attempts of discipline and cultivation [Zucht und Züchtung]” in order to determine the future of the human (BGE 203). This ambitious project of transfiguration is crystalized in the dramatic image of Zarathustra attempting to produce his Übermensch from the ugly, uncarved stone of humanity (Z II, “Upon the Isles of the Blessed”).[23]

Concealment and the Discreet Therapeutic Philosopher

Yet Platonic as this all sounds, one can nevertheless find deeper Epicurean reservations in Nietzsche’s thought even here. For the Nietzschean philosopher-lawgiver is a shadowy, unobtrusive, hidden figure who dwells far from the centers of conventional political power, shunning fame and the recognition of the masses.[24] As Zarathustra says in his initial condemnation of the city: “Around inventors of new values the world revolves—invisibly [unsichtbar] it revolves. Yet around play-actors the people and fame revolve: that is ‘the way of the world’” (Z I, “On the Flies of the Marketplace”). This same line is repeated later on after he and his students have abandoned the city, albeit with a small alteration: “Not around the inventors of new noise,” he says, “but around the inventors of new values does the world revolve, inaudibly [unhörbar] it revolves.” (Z II, “On Great Events”).[25]  A powerful but confusing image: what would it mean for the world to revolve “invisibly” or “inaudibly” around something or someone? It’s difficult to envision. The sense seems rather to be that it is the inventors of new values who themselves remain invisible or inaudible to the world, even as they shape it. Certainly Nietzsche saw himself that way as he wandered anonymously throughout southern Europe, and despite his occasional frustrated desire for recognition, believed—in a residually Epicurean spirit—that it was probably for the best.[26] Indeed, Nietzsche’s early retirement from the academy in 1879 and the inconspicuous, nomadic regimen that shaped the next ten years of his life were prompted not only by chronic health issues, but by his growing Epicurean inclination to free himself from the prison of daily duties and politics and become a genuine philosopher.[27] It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that his withdrawal from that world left him literally stateless.[28]

As mentioned earlier, it is in Nietzsche’s middle period works (1878-1882) that one finds the richest trove of Epicurean insights, and the siren call of the sequestered life is no exception. In describing the “prudence” of free spirits Nietzsche observes,

[They] will easily be content with, for example, a minor office or an income that just enables them to live; for they will organize their life in such a way that a great transformation of external circumstances, even an overturning of the political order, does not overturn their life with it. Upon all these things they expend as little energy as possible. . . . There is in [the free spirit’s] way of living and thinking a refined heroism which disdains to offer itself to the veneration of the great masses, as his coarser brother does, and tends to go silently [still] through the world and out of the world. Whatever labyrinths he may stray through, among whatever rocks his stream may make its torturous way—if he emerges into the open air he will travel his road bright, light and almost soundlessly [geräuschlos] and let sunshine play down into his very depths. (HH 291)

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