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

Works Cited

[1] While Nietzsche’s relationship to Epicurus was sometimes acknowledged in passing, there were until recently relatively few sustained discussions of Nietzsche’s view of Epicurus. Some noteworthy exceptions prior to the twenty-first century are A. H. J. Knight, “Nietzsche and Epicurean Philosophy,” Philosophy Vol. 8, No. 32 (Oct 1933), pp. 431-45; Fritz Bornmann, “Nietzsches Epikur,” Nietzsche Studien, Band 13 (1984), pp. 177-88; Joseph P. Vincenzo, “Nietzsche and Epicurus,” Man and World 27, no. 4 (October 1994), pp. 383–397 and Marcin Milkowski, “Idyllic Heroism: Nietzsche’s View of Epicurus,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 15 (1998), pp. 70–79.

[2] Laurence Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 444. On this affinity, see Howard Caygill, “Under the Epicurean Skies,” Angelaki 11, no. 3 (December 2006), pp. 107–115; Peter S. Groff, “Leaving the Garden: al-Rāzī and Nietzsche as Wayward Epicureans,” Philosophy East and West 64:4 (Oct. 2014), 983-1017; and most notably, Keith Ansell-Pearson’s recent work (see below).

[3] See e.g., Keith Ansell-Pearson, “True to the Earth: Nietzsche’s Epicurean Care of Self and World,” in Nietzsche’s Therapeutic Teaching: For Individuals and Culture , ed. Horst Hutter and Eli Friedland (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 97–116, “Heroic-Idyllic Philosophizing: Nietzsche and the Epicurean Tradition,” Philosophical Traditions, ed. Anthony O’Hear, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 74 (2014) , pp. 237-64, and “‘We Are Experiments’: Nietzsche on Morality and Authenticity,” in Nietzsche and the Becoming of Life, ed. Vanessa Lemm (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), pp. 277–299, and “The Need for Small Doses: Nietzsche, Fanaticism, and Epicureanism,” in Aurore, tournant dans l’œuvre de Nietzsche? ed. Celine Denat and Patrick Wotling (Reims: ÉPURE, 2015), pp. 193-227. On the recuperation of this ancient model of philosophy as way of life or art of living, see Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. and intro. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Michael Chase (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), and What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). See also Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1986) and Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin et al. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), and Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[4] On the continuing vitality of Epicurus’ thought, see AOM 48 and WS 227; on his modesty, see WS 192 and GS 45; on his greatness and heroic-idyllic mode of philosophizing see WS 295 and WS 332, as well as Ansell-Pearson, “Heroic-Idyllic Philosophizing” and Milkowski, “Idyllic Heroism”; on his higher cultural-spiritual status compared to other Hellenistic philosophers, see HH 275 and GS 306; on his therapeutic technique of multiple explanations (pleonachos tropos) see WS 7 and GS 375, as well as Wilson H. Shearin, “Misunderstanding Epicurus? A Nietzschean Identification,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 45.1 (Spring 2014), pp. 68-83; on his embrace of a deathbound soul and rejection of an afterlife see D 72 and Z P, 6, as well as Morgan Rempel “Daybreak 72: Nietzsche, Epicurus and the After Death,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 43.2 (Autumn 2012), pp. 49-68; on his pre-emptive war on Christianity, see A 58 and KSA 13:16[15]; on his anticipation of a modern scientific, de-deified worldview, see HH 68 and Groff, “Leaving the Garden”; for an Epicurean anticipation of the death of God, see WS 84. Nietzsche’s later writings take an increasingly unsympathetic view Epicurus, specifically his atomistic materialism (GS 109, 373, BGE 12, TI, “Reason,” 5), his hedonism (BGE 225), and his sickness and decadence (BT P4, GS P2 and 370, GM III.6 and 17, TI “Morality,” 3, A 30, KSA 11:25[95]).

[5] Herman Usener, Epicurea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Fragment 551. For the most comprehensive discussion of the lathe biōsas teaching, see Geert Roskam, ‘Live Unnoticed’: On the Vicissitudes of an Epicurean Doctrine (Leiden: Brill, 2007). Lathe has been rendered variously as “hidden,” “inconspicuously,” “in obscurity,” “unobtrusively,” “secretly,” etc.

[6] As Roskam points out, “One of the sad consequences of the manuscript tradition of Epicurus’ works is the that the maxim lathe biōsas has in the end applied its own advice. For indeed, it nowhere appears in the extant writings of Epicurus, leading, as it were, to its own hidden life, far away from inquisitive or boring scholars” (33).

[7] Principle Doctrines 6 and 7 (henceforth PD).

[8] Vatican Sentences 64 (cf. PD 7) and 81 (henceforth VS).

[9] PD 14. All translations from The Epicurus Reader, trans and ed. Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994). Cf. Usener, fragment 187.

[10] VS 58 and Diogenes Laertius 10.119 (henceforth DL); cf. DL 10.10: “So gentlemanly was [Epicurus] that he did not even participate in political life.”.

[11] He also contrived to mold existing rulers into something resembling a philosopher king, e.g., his ill-fated engagement with Dionysius II—which led Epicurus mockingly to describe Plato as “golden” (chrusuon) and his followers as “flatters of Dionysius” (Dionysiokolakes) i.e., tyrants’ sycophants. See DL 10.8; cf. BGE 7.

[12] Roskam, pp. 34-35.

[13] Cf. DL 10.121b: “[The sage] will found a school, but not so as to draw a crowd.” On the “deep-set boundary stone” (alte terminus haerens), which indicates the necessary limitations of nature according to which we should think and live (and thus rules out vain fears and desires), see Lucretius, On the Nature of Things I.77, cf. I.596, II.1087, III.787, 794, 990, and 1014.

[14] The Blessed Isles (makarōn nesoi) are in Greek myth an eschatological paradise located in the far Western streams of Okeanos where the elite few – originally heroes, later the righteous, in Platonic dialogues, philosophers—live eternally and happily. They begin as a conception of the afterlife (in opposition to Hades; later merged with Elysium), but in some versions become merely a place where life is easiest and best for mortals on earth. In the Republic, they become a kind of sop thrown to the philosopher-rulers: Socrates promises that after they have discharged their civic duty, they will be allowed to return to their contemplative life, this time on the Isles of the Blessed, while new guardians take over and pay back their own debt to the city (Republic 540b). Whether the philosophers ever finally liberate themselves from the tyranny of the city hinges on whether we understand this concession as the prospect of a happy retirement or simply a blithe recognition of their eventual death. An earlier remark made by Socrates (Republic 519c) would suggest that they function as at most a kind of afterworldly reward. For other references to the Blessed Isles in Plato’s dialogues, see Symposium 179e, 180b and Gorgias 523b, 524a. For pre-Platonic sources, see Hesiod, Works and Days, 167-173, Pindar, Olympian Odes, 2.68-80, and Herodotus, Histories, 3.26.1. See Eckart Olshausen, “Makarōn Nesoi” and Christine Sourvinou Inwood, “Elysium,” in Brill’s New Pauly Encyclopedia of the Ancient World: Antiquity (Leiden: E. J. Brill 2006).

[15] On this, see Bernard Frischer, The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California, 1982), p. 38.

[16] I use Walter Kaufmann’s translations for Penguin/Vintage and R.J. Hollingdale’s translations for Cambridge University Press, with occasional emendations in favor of greater literalness. The single exception is Graham Parkes’ recent translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra for Oxford. Translations of passages from the Nachlass or letters are my own unless otherwise noted. Cf. SE 6, p. 165, where he defends a conception of education (Bildung) “that makes one a solitary, that proposes goals that transcend money and money-making, that takes a long time,” characterizing it (affirmatively, in spite of popular opinion) as “’refined egoism’ and ‘immoral cultural Epicureanism’.”

[17] See e.g. TI, “Germans,” passim; cf. BGE 241.

[18] On this, see Peter Bergmann, Nietzsche, “The Last Antipolitical German” (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 1987). I set aside here the deeper and more difficult question whether Nietzsche does have a political philosophy in any traditional sense, and if so, how it ought to be understood. The literature on this question is steadily growing and far too voluminous to cite comprehensively, but see e.g. Tracy Strong, Nietzsche and Politics of Transfiguration (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1975/2000), Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Lawrence J. Hatab, A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1995), Daniel W. Conway, Nietzsche and the Political (London: Routledge, 1997), Frederick Appel, Nietzsche Contra Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), and Tamsin Shaw, Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), as well as three excellent recent anthologies: Nietzsche, Power and Politics: Rethinking Nietzsche’s Legacy for Political Thought, ed. Herman W. Siemens and Vasti Roodt (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), Nietzsche and Political Thought, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), and Nietzsche as Political Philosopher, eds. Manuel Knoll and Barry Stocker (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014).

[19] Nietzsche’s use of the the expression grosse Politik is sparse and not exactly univocal. Sometimes it’s loosely associated with any agent—princes, rulers, masses—that is spurred by the need for the feeling of power (D 189); sometimes it’s used ironically and in scare quotes to describe the shallow, petty, provincial power politics of the Reich (BGE 241, 254); sometimes it has to do with the “the struggle for the dominion of the world,” which at first may seem to indicate simply a more ambitious transnational European or world political power conflict (BGE 208). His final usage of it, however, suggests that it ultimately signifies a spiritual-cultural struggle for the future of the human (EH, “Destiny,” 1).

[20] Nietzsche grants this privileged status to the philosopher even in his early writings. See e.g. SE 3, p. 144; cf. Z III, “On Old and New Tablets,” 2.

[21] There are of course other differences too: their teachings are afterworldly, ostensibly universal, transcultural and ahistorical, etc.

[22] On Nietzsche as Platonic political philosopher, see Leo Strauss, “Note on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 174-191, Stanley Rosen, The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Cambridge: Cambridge Unity Press, 1995), Laurence Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes and Nietzsche (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997), and Nietzsche’s Task: An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), Horst Hutter, Shaping the Future: Nietzsche’s New Regime of the Soul and Its Ascetic Practices (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005) and Groff, “Wisdom and Violence,” pp. 71-75.

[23] See BGE 62 and 225 for similar sculptural metaphors. Cf. Z III, “On Old and New Tablets,” 29: “And blessedness it must seem to you to press your hand upon millennia as upon wax . . .”

[24] A beautiful aphorism from Daybreak entitled “Do not perish unnoticed,” (D 435) would at first seem to suggestive an explicit repudiation of Epicurus’ teaching, insofar as his counsel to live unnoticed was often understood as entailing that we should die unnoticed (lathe apobiōsas). However, D 435 has more to do with the ways in which we gradually get ground down to nothing by the seemingly small, everyday, repetitive details of our lives about which we are inadequately cognizant. In this sense it should be understood against the background of passages like WS 5-6, 16, D 553, and EH, “Clever,” 10—Epicurean passages which emphasize the importance of attending to the “closest,” “smallest and most everyday things,” e.g. diet, housing, clothing, nutrition, place, climate, recreation, etc.

[25] Cf. Z II, “The Stillest Hour”: “It is the stillest [stillsten] words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on dove’s feet guide the world.”

[26] See letters to Heinrich Köselitz, Aug. 26, 1883 (KSB 6, 436) and Dec 10, 1885 (KSB 7, 121-22).

[27] On this, see Paolo D’Iorio, Nietzsche’s Journey to Sorrento: Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit, tr. Sylvia Mae Gorelick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Ostensibly an account of Nietzsche’s initial voyage to Sorrento during his year of sick leave to live in a friendship community with Malwida von Meysenbug, Paul Rée and Albert Brenner, it provides a rich and insightful portrait of the turn in Nietzsche’s life from disenchanted university professor to nomadic philosopher. His middle period works—especially Human, All Too Human—are strewn with warnings against the petty, obsessive vita activa of modern life; see e.g. HH 283: “As at all times, so too now, human beings are divided into the slaves and the free: for he who does not have two-thirds of his day to himself is a slave, no matter what else he may be: statesman, business, official, scholar.”

[28] As D’Iorio points out, due to an unusual combination of circumstances, Nietzsche was by this time no longer a citizen of any country—an appropriate status for a self-proclaimed “good European” (D’Iorio, p. 9).

[29] Cf. SE 6, p. 165 and WS 295. On Nietzsche’s appropriation of Epicurus’ “refined egoism” as a kind of naturalistic care of the self, see Ansell-Pearson, “True to the Earth,” pp. 97-116; for an excellent discussion of Epicurus as exemplifying the “heroic-idyllic mode of philosophizing,” see Ansell-Pearson, “Heroic-Idyllic Philosophizing,” pp. 237-63. See also Marcin Milkowski, “Idyllic Heroism: Nietzsche’s View of Epicurus,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 15 (1998), pp. 70–79.

[30] Nietzsche often associates Epicurus with sunlight (specifically a clear, bright exterior light); see e.g. WS 295, WS 332 and GS 45. Cf. implicitly Epicurean passages where Nietzsche describes his own predilections, e.g. D 553.

[31] See GS 306, which purports to compare the Stoic and the Epicurean as types. The passage has an inescapably autobiographical or even confessional tone: “The Epicurean selects the situation, the persons, and even the events that suit his extremely irritable, intellectual constitution; he gives up all others, which means almost everything, because they would be too strong and heavy for him to digest. . . the Epicurean would rather dispense with [the Stoic’s theatrical cultivation to insensitivity], having his ‘garden’! For those with whom fate attempts improvisations—those who live in violent ages and and depend on sudden and mercurial people—Stoicism may indeed be advisable. But anyone foresees more or less that fate permits him to spin a long thread does well to make Epicurean arrangements. That is what all those have always done whose work is of the spirit.” (GS 306). CF. HH 275, where the Epicurean type is favored over the more ham-fisted Cynic.

[32] On Epicurus’ mistaken identity, see WS 227, GS 45 and BGE 7; cf. Letter to Heinrich Köselitz, Aug. 3, 1883 (KSB 6, 418).

[33] On solitude in Nietzsche, see Peter H. Van Ness, “Nietzsche on Solitude: The Spiritual Discipline of the Godless,” Philosophy Today 32.4 (Winter 1988), pp. 346-358 and Hutter, pp. 47-74. As D’Iorio points out (Nietzsche’s Journey, p. 16), the original projected title for Human, All Too Human was “The Light Life” (Das leichte Leben). The initial sketches from 1876 are again strikingly Epicurean in spirit, describing an “art of living” (Lebenskunst) that aims not at lightening life (i.e., making it easy for us), and certainly not at making it even harder (so as to offer afterwards some supreme soteriological recipe), but rather helping us “to take life lightly,” like the gods, standing before the truth in vivid rapture. See KSA 8:16[7], 17[74] and 17[85].

[34] Cf. HH 285, which casts the Epicurean need for contemplative repose (Ruhe) in comparable terms. Zarathustra’s multiple withdrawals into solitude, away from both the cities and his own disciples, are framed in this way as well. On the notion of a provisional, strategic withdrawal into Epicurean friendship communities in order later to engage in great politics, see Hutter, p. 5.

[35] On this see Graham Parkes, Composing the Soul: Reaches of Nietzsche’s Psychology (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1994), esp. pp. 157-203, Michael Ure, Nietzsche’s Therapy: Self-Cultivation in the Middle Works (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), and of course, Ansell-Pearson’s many article and chapters on Nietzsche and Epicurus.

[36] Cf BGE 25, where one’s friends are the garden in a “good solitude”; here one becomes the healing, inspiring garden for other like-minded spirits. See also D 194, which similarly contends that instead of offering moral prescriptions for everyone, “One should seek out limited circles and seek to promote morality for them . . . Great success, however, is reserved above all to him who wants educate, not everybody or even limited circles, but a single individual . . . .” This more modest, conservative, selective approach to transfiguration can be seen in other passages from Daybreak, e.g., D 534, where he emphasizes “small doses” rather than great revolutions, or D 462, where he advocates “slow cures” of the soul, focusing again on the overlooked “little” things (cf. WS 5-6, 16, D 435, 553). On this theme, see Ansell-Pearson, “The Need for Small Doses.”

[37] Cf. SE 1, passim on the theme of not losing oneself.

[38] Cf. Z I, “On the Bestowing Virtue.”

[39] On the Epicurean compatibility between self-realization and helping select others, see D 174 and GS 338, as well as Keith Ansell-Pearson, “Beyond Selfishness: Epicurean Ethics in Nietzsche and Guyau,” in Nietzsche’s Free Spirit Philosophy, ed. Rebecca Bamford (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), pp. 49-68; on sunshine as an Epicurean symbol, see again WS 295, WS 332 and GS 45; on Epicurus and the sublime, see WS 295; on the association of Epicureanism and a long life, see GS 306.

[40] On Epicurus’ “powerful nature,” see Letter to Heinrich Köselitz, July 1, 1883 (KSB 6, 389); cf. Letter to Heinrich Köselitz, Jan. 22, 1879 (KSB 5, 383). On the image of being “buried” and “concealed” in an Epicurean sense, see WS 229; cf. D 449 and BGE 25.

[41] On this, see SE 1, p. 129-30 and 3, p. 136-37.

[42] See e.g. KSA 9:15[59].

[43] In this respect, while acknowledging the reality of a more robustly political Nietzsche, my approach obviously inclines towards the sort of apolitical, privatized readings of Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 242–56 (cf. p. 418) and Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), esp. chap. 4.

[44] George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York, Harper Collins, 2015), p. 838.

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