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

The mood and language of this passage is deeply Epicurean: the emphasis on prudence (Vorsicht, a common German rendering of phronēsis, which is for Epicurus the root of all other virtues), the desideratum of minimizing interaction with and dependency upon the city, the strategy of creating stabilizing bulwarks against social and political disruption, the evocation of refined heroism,[29] the avoidance of the masses, going silently-soundlessly through and out of the world (lathe biōsas, lathe apobiōsas), and the themes of open air and sunlight.[30]  But who is the “coarser brother” (gröberer Bruder) of this Epicurean free spirit who seeks popular veneration? The meddling Socratic gadfly? The Platonic philosopher ruler? The vain Peripatetic seeking recognition as a knower? More likely, it is either the theatrical Cynic- or the Stoic-type, both of whom Nietzsche elsewhere compares unfavorably to the more nuanced, cultural and spiritual Epicurean.[31]

One finds reminders of this Epicurean prudence even in the post-Zarathustran works. In Beyond Good and Evil, for example, he counsels his nascent free spirits in similar terms:

Take care, philosophers and friends, of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom! Of suffering “for the truth’s sake” [in the manner of Socrates, Spinoza, Giordano Bruno, etc]! . . . Rather, go away. Flee into concealment [Verborgene]. And have your masks and your subtlety, that you may be mistaken for what you are not, or feared a little. And don’t forget the garden, the garden with golden trelliswork. And have people around you who are as a garden . . . choose the good solitude, the free, playful, light solitude that gives you too the right to remain good in some sense. (BGE 25)

Apart from the obvious Epicurean tropes of withdrawal and concealment—earlier in the same book, he describes Epicurus as “hidden away [versteckt sass] in his little garden” (BGE 7)—it should be noted that the figure of Epicurus is sometimes associated in Nietzsche’s writings with having an unknown or obscured identity: being mistaken for what one is not.[32] And note that even the emphasis on solitude here—an ascetic practice that looms large throughout Nietzsche’s corpus—is construed in Epicurean terms: the “good” and “light” solitude is the garden, where one is not entirely alone and never lonely, because there are always healing friends and kindred spirits.[33]

Sometimes this Epicurean withdrawal-concealment strategy is cast as a necessary prologue to more ambitious cultural or even political projects: a desire to be useful on a grander scale. In an aphorism entitled “The buried” (Vergrabenen), he writes,

We withdraw [zurückziehen] into concealment [Verborgene]: but not out of any kind of personal ill-humor, as though the political and social situation of the present day were not good enough for us, but because through our withdrawal we want to economize and assemble forces of which culture will later have great need, and more so if this present remains this present and as such fulfils its task. We are accumulating capital and seeking to make it secure: but, as in times of great peril, to do that we have to bury it. (WS 229)[34]

The predominant emphasis in the middle period writings, however, is on a more modest task: cooperative therapy and pluralistic experiments in self-cultivation among a small elite circle of like-minded free spirits.[35] This is often juxtaposed with the imprudent desire (rooted in sympathy or pity) to eliminate danger and suffering from the lives of others. An aphorism in Daybreak concludes:

the question itself remains unanswered whether one is of more use to another by immediately leaping to his side and helping him – which can in any case be only superficial where it does not become a tyrannical seizing and transforming – or by creating something out of oneself that the other can behold with pleasure: a beautiful, restful, self-enclosed [abgeschlossenen] garden perhaps, with high walls against storms and the dust of the roadway but also a hospitable gate. (D 174)[36]

Interestingly, the Platonic strategy of “tyrannical seizing and transforming” is considered here, but quickly passed over in favor of a more voluntary, private Epicurean cultivation. A year later in The Gay Science Nietzsche returns to this idea and unpacks it more carefully. Pointing out the ways in which the causes and inner logic of a person’s suffering are for the most part inaccessible or incomprehensible to others—and thus why pity is an ineffective and even counter-productive response to suffering—he encourages philosophical therapists to prioritize their own self-discovery and cultivation and then, by extension, focus only on kindred souls who they can genuinely understand and help. The primary concern is never to lose “one’s own way”:

How is it possible to keep to one’s own way? Constantly, some clamor or other calls us aside; rarely does our eye behold anything that does not require us to drop our own preoccupation instantly to help. I know, there are a hundred decent and praiseworthy ways of losing my own way, and they are truly highly “moral”! Indeed, those who now preach the morality of pity even take the view that precisely this and only this is moral—to lose one’s own way in order to come to the assistance of a neighbor. I know just as certainly that I only need to expose myself to the sight of some genuine distress and I am lost. And if a suffering friend said to me, “Look, I am about to die; please promise to die with me,” I should promise it; and the sight of a small mountain tribe fighting for its liberty would persuade me to offer it my hand and my life . . . All such arousing of pity and calling for help is secretly seductive, for our “own way” is too hard and demanding and too remote from the love and gratitude of others, and we do not really mind escaping from it . . . while I shall keep silent [verschweigen, i.e., hide, conceal, keep secret] about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion [Lebe im Verborgenen, i.e, live secretly, discreetly, in hiding or concealment] so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you. You will also wish to help – but only those whose distress you understand entirely because they share with you one suffering and one hope – your friends – and only in the manner in which you help yourself. (GS 338)[37]

Pages ( 3 of 5 ): « Previous12 3 45Next »