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

The conclusion to this passage (“live in concealment so that you can live for yourself”) is an elegant summation of the lathe biōsas maxim, and more generally of the kind of refined egoism that drew Nietzsche to Epicurus.

Even when the theme of philosophical therapeia is expressed in a more generous, expansive and inclusive mood, the Epicurean watchwords remain. In one such passage, Nietzsche speaks of the desire to “give away one’s spiritual house and possessions” in assisting those working on themselves.[38] Such a therapist, Nietzsche suggests,

is not merely not looking for fame: he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude [Einsamkeit] and silence [Stillschweigen]. What he seeks is to live nameless [namenlos] and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility . . . To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! . . . Forever in a kind of love and self-enjoyment! To be in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed [verborgen] and renouncing! To lie continually in the sunshine and gentleness of grace, and yet to know that the paths that rise up to the sublime are close by—That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life! (D 449)

The emphasis on (relative) solitude, namelessness, silence and concealment is obviously Epicurean, as is the indirect utility of refined egoism, the sunshine motif, the reference to the sublime, and even the evocation of a long life.[39] But in a Nachlass note from Autumn 1880, we find a link that tethers this passage even more closely to Epicurus. There he offers a strikingly resonant portrait of the type sketched out above: those who are in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed and renouncing. “I found strength,” he writes, “in the very places one does not look for it, in simple, gentle and helpful human beings, without the slightest inclination to rule. . . powerful natures dominate, that is a necessity, even if they do not move one finger. And when they bury [vergraben] themselves, in their lifetime, in a garden house [Gartenhaus]!” (KSA 9:6[206]).[40] Once again, one feels the magnetism of the hidden Epicurus, and with it, Nietzsche’s desire to play a similar role.

The Hidden, Helpful Life

To engage with Nietzsche’s writings as though he’s offering a series of claims that might be true or false is to lose the power of philosophy as a way of life and indeed, to overlook the importance of philosophers as interlocutors, educators and examples.[41] It is tempting, when observing Nietzsche’s post-Zarathustran descent into great politics, to conclude that he somehow lost his way—that he should have stuck with his Epicurean experiments in private self-cultivation and not worried about redeeming humanity—but what ultimately is the point of such criticisms? Nietzsche made the moves he made and there’s no sense in pronouncing upon what he should have said. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up what Nietzsche himself abandoned. Nietzsche took what he wanted from the Greeks in the construction of his own art of living, and we in turn can take what we want from him.[42] Some of it will be useful to us, some of it not. I am of the opinion that his middle period experiments, when he was closest in spirit to Epicurus, are the ones we can profit from the most.[43] Nietzsche is most helpful when he wants least to be noticed, when he is discreet and modest like the powerful philosopher-therapist hidden in the garden: “in possession of a dominion,” as he says, “and at the same time concealed and renouncing” (D 449, cf. KSA 9:6[206]). This is the Nietzsche who is the true educator, who liberates and invigorates and augments the lives of his readers. George Eliot, that other great modern Epicurean, perhaps put it best when she observed that

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.[44]

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